February 15, 2014

Big plans

Big, comprehensive plans usually come to grief. It is impossible to identify all the variables and how they interact even if things stay the same - and they never do. Big plans make hard, still and brittle systems. Being robust & adaptive is better in a world that cannot be predicted. Having a good process in mind is better than a great plan.

In Germany's case, they ended up doing precisely what the plan was supposed to avoid. Carbon emissions are now rising in Germany, even as those in the "plan-less" U.S. are falling.

I have been following this planning debate my whole adult life. I recall that I used to be upset that we had no big plans. When I was in college, professors told me it was a weakness of ours. I recall reading how communists would dominate us because they had a coherent plan. Didn't work out for them. I remember the Japanese supposedly had plans that thought a century ahead. (We should not have thought that was impressive. Imagine a plan from 1914. Assumptions would not have played out.) Well that one didn't work out so well either.

A big, detailed long range plan is a work of fiction. It may be beautiful. Fiction is often clearer and more rational than fact. It makes people feel better but it is pure BS if you get more than a few years out. You cannot predict the big discontinuous change because it is discontinuous. It is the meaning of the concept. All planning depends on the future resembling the past. At times when it doesn't ... we use the simple term overtaken by events, but it is worse.

A better plan is distributed decision making and emergent strategy. You can set goal, but know that you need to change them when conditions change and assumptions prove wrong.

From a strictly personal greed point of view, however, I hope our European friends hold onto their master plan a few more years. We are experiencing a boom in wood pellets, shipped from the Port of Chesapeake to Europe. It has really helped the prices for pulp and even smaller round wood. They use our renewable forest litter to generate electricity. We can produce and ship them cheaper than our European friends can, even with their local advantage. So thanks guys. The plan is working for some people, just not maybe the ones you planned for.

December 20, 2013

Happy days are here again

US Capitol December 2013 

2013 was not a good career year for me, as I have written elsewhere. I tried not to let it bother me. I was content that I was doing the best I could and was producing great results. I understand that randomness plays a much bigger role in career success than most of us like to admit. Throwing snake eyes is against the odds but it happens. Of course, the mind can understand things that the heart cannot feel. Today my good luck came back big time.  

Today I was offered the senior international adviser job at Smithsonian. This is great. I have been interested in this job since I found out about it. State Department seconds a senior FSO to Smithsonian. The job is a kind of State liaison and involves helping Smithsonian make international connections. I will be able to do a good job, make a contribution and it will really be fun.

I have always been fond of museums and of the kinds of outreach they do in terms of culture and education. Science, history, innovation, arts, I will be doing the kinds of things I love. And it gets even better. My office will be in the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. In all the world, there probably is no better location. 

So this is pretty sweet. I have been very lucky with my assignments. I “settled” only once for an assignment that I didn’t want when I did my time in the Ops Center, but I was only there for nine months punctuated by three months temporary assignment in my beloved Poland. My assignment at IIP/P went south. I just couldn’t make that one work, but I really cannot complain about how they treated me. Besides those two, it was a string of great jobs: Porto Alegre, Oslo, Krakow, Warsaw and Brasília. I even found Iraq fulfilling, if not physically pleasant. State Department gave me a great gift when they assigned me to Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy ten years ago. I think Smithsonian is even a bigger deal. Excuse my exuberance. I am very happy just now.  

I took the picture yesterday. It is the view I will have just a few steps from my office next year. 

December 08, 2013

Orderly in its own peculiar way

Front flower garden 

I don’t like things too orderly, at least not in the usual sense. I have to emphasize, not in the sense usually understood.  I have been reading and studying for the last couple of years about randomness, chaos and spontaneous order. Most systems have an element of self-organization and all are subject to randomness. I am beginning to think that there is a higher order, a more subtle one but one more appropriate to the complex and changing situations we generally face. There is much we cannot control and it is probably better not to try. Instead of making plans that won’t work, it is better to have robust processes in place that take advantage of many situations. If you want to plan, maybe optimize it for the most likely scenario, but be ready to adapt.  

Back yard garden 

I have come to accept and even celebrate my ignorance, uncertainty and lack of detailed plans. It can be difficult to explain to others. I sometimes find it useful to have a profound plan that I can explain. Who knows?  It might work. But I rarely believe that. I know with moral certitude that I will have to vary the plan, so it really is not a good idea to get too detailed into the planning. I suppose it is related to the "don't spend a dollar to make a dime decision" rule of thumb.  Don't spend a lot of time and resources on something that is likely to be overtaken by events.

Things have been working out very well for me with my belief in the contingency nature of planning.  I trust it will continue to work like that.  People with plans seem to have things better in hand, but when those plans work it is merely a species of my random contingencies.  

Ground cover 

It doesn’t mean I don’t have any plans of my own, but I keep my goals firm and my methods flexible.  IMO, some planners get this exactly wrong. They are less clear where they want to go than about the steps they will need to take to get there.

I was thinking about this today as I was weeding my “garden”. You can see the pictures of my flowers.  It is disorderly in some senses, self-organizing and others and goal oriented for me.  I pull weeds all the time and I move plants around. For example, I am establishing that ground cover you see with the blue flowers. Once in place, there will be no grass to cut in that place. The grass never grew very well there anyway.  I have been gathering plants from other parts of the yard. The flowers come from seeds I gather when I ride my bike and then spread. They are all volunteers. I weed out what I don’t like, so it is not unplanned, but I do depend on what grows. My system is maintained w/o any power tools and I compost everything, so there is no garbage going out.   

When I briefly had a gardener, we “exported” several bags of organic waste every week. I got rid of the gardener because he dissed by disorder and composting. I have not cut the whole lawn since May of 2012, although I knock down parts with my hand mover and scythe. There are lots of bees and butterflies and I suppose perhaps some of the nastier denizens of nature too, but they need a place to live too.  The disorder gives us more diversity and more of everything in its disorder. 

I think that is a good metaphor for life.  It might be easier just to mow everything down, as it was when I got here.  It would seem much more orderly, but it would be less interesting. Next week it will be different in ways I can anticipate but don't control. I am always interested to see what will grow and how. I get to play in the garden every day and exert my influence, but there is the aspect of randomness. I like that. I established order in my peculiar way.  

November 30, 2013

A legend in my own mind

A lot happened in Brazilian-American relations while I was here.  If asked to predict before I got here, even if asked to be extravagant, I would never have been so bold as to predict all the things accomplished in education and English learning.  The numbers are impressive.  Our English teacher exchange, for example, grew 54 fold in the time I was in Brazil.  This is not 54%, but 54 times.  By the time I leave, more than 20,000 Brazilian students will have gone to the U.S. on SwB.

I am in an unusual position.  Usually, I am trying to figure out what why we couldn’t get everything we hoped.  In this case I am trying to figure out my/our contribution to something so massively big that those unfamiliar with our operation do not believe it.  There was an interesting example last year when I reported about the increase in English teacher exchanges I mentioned above. I wrote to Washington that we expected to go from twenty to 490. My colleague in Washington thought I made a typing mistake and reported up 49.  Actually, I was wrong.  By the time I corrected the correction, our Brazilian friends had agreed to 540 and soon after that wanted to do the program twice a year, bringing the total to 1080.  The English w/o Borders program in general is expected to reach 7 million Brazilians over the next four years.  When you throw around numbers like this, it is no wonder people don’t believe it.

My analysis challenge is trying to figure out how much of the success over the past years would have happened without our contributions and how much my team and I did.  I have come to a nuanced answer.   We didn’t do anything in the sense of making it happen.  Our Brazilian friends did it.  American universities made the connections. Fulbright coordinated and IIE and Laspau made placements. But we facilitated all of them. We were necessary but not sufficient.  Necessary but not sufficient is not a satisfying answer.  This kind of ambivalence doesn’t look good on our efficiency reports and will not get the recognition we “deserve.”  Nobody gets promoted for being necessary but not sufficient. We prefer the illusion of control, but isn’t it better to be a necessary part of something really big instead of in complete control of something vanishingly small?

Why bother trying to figure it out at all if we are getting good results?  Results matter, but if you don’t study the process you cannot estimate to what extent those results came from your efforts, from what others did or from luck & serendipity.  It is always a combination but the mix matters.  You want to be able to duplicate success and avoid problems.  Unfortunately, much of our success cannot be duplicated. It was based on conditions which will not be present again. Ironically, our success altered the landscape in such a way that my methods are no longer effective. Knowing this is worth the time it takes to understand the process. Maybe I don’t exactly know what to do to achieve future success, but I know that I cannot continue to apply unaltered what worked so well the first time around. Knowing this is worth knowing.

This leads me back to my title.  As I get ready to finish in Brazil, I am feeling the usual mix of pride in a job well done plus the strange brew of simultaneously feeling humble at being so lucky, i.e. not deserving much recognition and feeling aggrieved for not getting much recognition. I didn’t say it was logical.  The more effectively you achieve something by working with others, the more others think it is simply natural and inevitable. Maybe it was. Maybe I am only a legend in my own mind. Maybe I just shouldn’t care.  I often joke that I need not worry since they cannot fire me and they will not promote me. That really is true.

Being necessary but not sufficient implies that you are part of a big team. There is often a distributed decision network at work and many members of the team are only vaguely aware or even unaware entirely of all the others. There are lots of necessary but not sufficient players.  My FS career is almost over. I would really like a big success to top it off, but I don’t think I can have one. If it is “my” success it won’t be big and if it is big I will share it with so many others that it won’t be mine. Good enough for me.  

November 11, 2013

Time & Money

These are the notes of a short presentation I will give at one of our conferences.

Nothing we do is rocket science.  My guess is that most people think they already do most of the things we will talk about.   But proper management is like diet and exercise. The principles are simple and well known, simple and well known, but not easy to do consistently and not much followed.

We worry about budget cuts.  Let me stipulate right here and now that money is important.  My programs might improve if I had more money, but maybe not.  It depends on how it is used. Ben Franklin said that time is money.  You can indeed sometimes trade one for the other. You might be able to buy a rush job.  But time is less flexible than money and I will talk more about using time wisely and well than I will talk about specifically saving money.  Time is our limiting factor because of how we work today.  Our paradigm is partnership, not patronage.  This means deploying intelligence to find points of maximum leverage and sometimes not contributing any money at all. 

It is time for my short digression, my suitable story. This one is about a guy who is locked out of his office.  He needs to get in immediately and calls a locksmith, who tells him that he can help him out, but it will cost $50.  The guy agrees and the locksmith shows up.  He takes a look at the lock and gives it a little tap.  The lock springs open, whereupon the locksmith asks for his money.  “$50, the guy protests, for making a little tap.  Let me see an itemized bill.”  The locksmith gives him what he asks.  The receipt reads: $.05 for tapping the lock open; $49.95 for knowing where and how to do it.

As I said, nothing we do is rocket science.  Our value added also comes from knowing where and how to do what we do.

We want sustainable programs.  Sustainable implies something that can survive WITHOUT our continued infusion of OUR resources, so I have been trying to avoid things that cost a lot of money and mostly succeeding.  Although has been said that some people have too much money but nobody has enough, I sometimes have enough money; I never have enough time.

Do important things – do the most important things.  This implies saying “no” more often than saying “yes.”

I once heard piece of music composed by John Cage in 1952 called “Four thirty-three”.   It is a three movement composition in which the musician plays nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  The first time I “heard” this this I was not impressed.  When the musician told me that most people could not understand that “silence too is music,” I stood firmly with most people.

But the idea is not that nothing happens, but rather that listeners fill in the lacunas with their own thoughts and maybe become more aware of ambient sounds & other environmental factors.

I still don’t really appreciate this “music” but I do respect the idea that you can sometimes be doing a lot by doing less or doing nothing.  The spaces between are sometimes as important as the words or notes. 

Some of us think that if we are in charge and doing something, that nothing is happening.  This is probably true for bad leaders and poor managers, but it should not be the case for us.

This is my long way around saying that choosing what won’t do is as important as deciding what we will do.  Making the right choices does indeed allow us to do more with less, at least more of the right things. This is a simple concept, but not easy.  We have to cut good programs in order to have the time to do better ones.

Here are a few one liners

·         Pick the low hanging fruit

·         Do the easy things first

·         Don’t spend a dollar to do make a dime decision

·         Work through others

·         It may be better to be a small part of something big than a big part of something small

This last one is a big part of our success in Brazil. We played an important role in Science w/o Borders, an ambitious program to send 101,000 young Brazilians overseas to study in the STEM fields. This is much bigger and will have more lasting effects than anything we could have done on our own. It is not our program, but I believe that we were necessary, if not sufficient for its success. There are only two ways to get anything done. Success comes from a combination of pushing harder and removing barriers.  The mix matters. People often prefer to push harder, since it seems more active, but removing barriers is often more sustainable because it creates conditions where events naturally flow. It is like cutting a channel for water to run naturally rather than installing a pump to move the water.

So far, more than 15,000 students have gone to the U.S. on SwB program. It is an example of a true partnership.  Our goals and those of our Brazilian partners are perfectly compatible. Our job is to make their lives easier, to make it clear and easy to do what they want, what we all want.  A recent example is the acceptance in SwB of professional master’s degrees. It is the perfect SwB program, IMO, because it combines hands-on training with academic rigor. We worked to make information about such programs readily available to decision makers and make sure the pathway into American universities was clear and easy.  After the President of Brazil accepted the inclusion, the Minister of Education announced that 1000 slots would be made available, all for the U.S.  Why the U.S.?  Only the U.S. offers such degrees. We like a level playing field where we own the grass. Everyone benefits and we have a natural and sustainable system.

In the fields of education and English teaching, our Mission teams and those of our Brazilian friends work seamlessly together.  This remarkable achievement is based on trust and confidence.  Our friends know that they can come to us with questions and problems and we will try to find answers and solutions.  Beyond that, those connections can be and are made at the working level. Our connections are like Velcro, with lots of little hooks. We can do that because our people are energized.

Empower colleagues – This means what it says.  If I get a request or task, I try to put the most appropriate person in charge.  This may be an American; it may be a LES.  But I give them the task.  And this is the key point.   When they ask me whether I want to see it before the send it to Washington/DCM/Ambassador, my answer is often “no, just copy me.”  I usually don’t check it before it goes up. If I do check it, I pride myself on making few or no changes.  They know what they are doing.

My colleagues also have authority to do many things autonomously.   If it is within their scope of authority, they need not ask permission or fear retribution.  I expect that they will consult with colleagues as appropriate.  I may suggest that they work with particular ones, but I try not to. If they are the most appropriate person to do the job, I presume that they know more about the details than I do.  It is presumptuous and arrogant for me to believe that I know better and it wastes a lot of time, mine and that of others.

Letting go is very hard in our State culture.  All FSOs are smart. We have the capacity to remember lots of things and this gives us the illusion of control as well as the inclination to substitute our judgment for that of others.  As leaders, our job is to create conditions where others can exercise judgment.  We all can buy into this in theory, but in practice it means that I will never be able to know all that is happening in my organization.  I don’t even try anymore.  This is not because I am lazy (well, maybe). It is because I choose to use my limited time to do things more important, more appropriate for my particular talents or position or using my time in places where my value added is greatest.

There is a story about the dictator of North Korea, Kim Il Sung.  According to the story, Kim knew pretty much everything and once when his engineers were building a dam, he immediately saw that they had not chosen the right location and made them move it.  You can see why the place works as it does, but there is a meta-lesson.  People evidently think it is a compliment to claim that the big boss would have the specific knowledge greater than his engineers.  We know that if that is true, you either have a horrible leader or horrible engineers, probably both.

It is hard not to want to seem to know more than we do.  We FSO don’t fear dismemberment or death as much as we fear being exposed as wrong or ignorant in front of our peers.  We hate it when an Ambassador or DCM or pretty much any of our applicable colleagues asks for details and we just don’t know.  The proper response is, “My colleague or partners are doing that.  I trust them to get it right.”  But are we comfortable with that answer?

We recently had a very successful visit by John Kerry.  The PA part was to set up a kind of science fair, highlighting our successful partnership with Brazilians in the STEM fields.  As usual, we had only a few hours to get going.  I relied on my Brazilian partners.  Only they could marshal and manage the resources we needed to make it happen on a Friday for a Monday program.   When Kerry’s team asked me for details of what would be done, I had to tell them I was confident that our partners would do great work.  When they wanted to do a final walkthrough, I had to tell them we could not impose on our  our Brazilian government partners to open and pay overtime on a Sunday.  When they wanted to make last minute changes, I had to tell them it was not possible.  I explained to them that their putative (I did not use this precise adjective) needs were my most urgent priority, but the key to success, both now and later, was maintaining and strengthening relations with the Brazilian partner. They would still be here after Kerry left.  To their credit, the team seemed to understand or at least did not stand in the way.

Our part of the visit worked perfectly.   In fact, it was outstanding, because our Brazilian partners came through, as I knew they would.  I am morally certain that if I had interfered more or facilitated more interference, it would have been less good, maybe even a failure.  The difference is that when I did what I did, I bought the risk for myself.  Had it failed, the failure would have been on me.  Had I done the usual, chances of failure would have been much greater, but blame would not affix to me.   I hope that John Maynard Keynes was wrong when he said, it is often better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.  But it is a risk we have to take.  It is not an option; it is our duty.

You might think that I have drifted from the idea of saving money and time, but I have not.  In the example of the visit, we saved time, money and stress.  I did not deploy scores of people for this visit.  We brought in no TDY. In fact, during the visit, we maintained previously scheduled a CAO conference. In other words, we handled the SecState visit, as we did a visit by Biden a couple weeks earlier, as business as usual that did not require extraordinary disruptions in our important priorities.  We really did accomplish more with less of our own time and money by relying on outside partners and maintaining a disciplined approach of matching appropriate resources to the need, rather than throwing all we had at it.

Up top, I used the analogy of diet and exercise.  We all know what to do, but often don’t do it. A VIP visit would be analogous to binge eating.  We sometimes lose our discipline when we are beguiled or intimidated by important people.   It is precisely at these times when we need to be stronger.

Let me finish with another story, only one last time. This is a story close to my heart.  As some of you know, forestry is my hobby.  I studied forestry in college and I own around 430 acres of forest land in Virginia.  They seem very different,  but forestry works a lot like public affairs.  Things take a long time to develop and you can never control all the variables.  In these complex and dynamic systems, results are often not commensurate with inputs, i.e. sometimes lots of inputs produce nothing, while little things can be decisive, but the key to success if understanding the environment, choosing the appropriate actions and then giving them time to develop in the way you know they will.  A truly well-managed forest often seems like it is not much managed at all.  It seems natural because we are working with natural systems. 

Since 2005, I have had the pleasure of writing a quarterly article for Virginia Forests Magazine.  I think my most recent article applies to both of my professional passions - forestry and public affairs.

What I said to my follow forestry folks applies to us in public affairs and I will quote it directly.  “We are in a controversial business. Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, most (not some most) people misunderstand what we do. But our story is important and we should tell it with eagerness and vigor, not just to each other but to all who want to listen, and maybe even to some who don’t. Our narrative is not one of “leaving a smaller footprint” or “reducing damage.” Ours is the affirmative story or renewal and regeneration, of imagination, intelligence and innovation making things better.”

October 05, 2013

Government shutdown

I don't really understand.  I went to a census webpage today and got a message that it was suspended because of the shutdown.  Why?  If there is still electricity to run the site, and there is because I got the message, there is no additional cost to leaving the information accessible. In fact, it probably cost more to put up that message than it would to just leave it alone. 

I am still working, since overseas diplomacy is considered crucial at least for now. My Brazilian colleagues cannot be furloughed because of Brazilian law, which applies to them. Since we are on the job, I think we should do our jobs to extent we can given that our resources have been cut. 

We are shut down due to lack of appropriations. It isn't like being on strike; it means that we still want to work but don't have money and I cannot spend money on new things. But we still have a lot of not new things that we can use or do and we have our skills, talents and time.  I don't want to stand down until I have nothing left to stand with.  The work we do is valuable.  It was worth doing last week and is worth doing now. There are rules about these things, however, and perhaps protean interpretations.  I just want to do the job that they are still paying me to do and I think most of my colleagues do too. We should do our best to minimize the pain and mitigate the damage. That is what I intend to do as far as I am allowed: maybe even a little bit farther.

June 08, 2013

The problem of getting too much for free

Most of us are willing to do things we like to do for little or no money. The payoff may be simple recognition. Passionate amateurs have made many great discoveries. Crowdsourcing lets us to tap into even wider expertise. It's great if people are willing to contribute their time to worthy endeavors like Wikipedia, the search for intelligent life or other collective projects? Maybe not. 

I take lots of pictures and post articles. All my stuff is "creative commons." Sometimes people ask my permission to use my words or pictures; sometimes they just use them. I am happy just to be useful. Many of us are like this and it has been good. But the Internet's capacity to aggregate information and make it available on massive scales may be making this virtue into a vice.

Think about those pictures. Some people used to make a living as photographers. Most of them really liked to take pictures, which is why they were in the business, but they WERE in business. They got paid for what they did.  Those at the very top of the photography world still make lots of money. The rank and file photographers are being pushed out of the business by people like you and me providing similar quality at an unbeatable price - free.

This goes for lots of other creative people, such as writers, musicians or speakers and even teachers. The Internet dynamic here is similar. People don't need to pay for the middle quality writing or music because it is all free on Internet. On the other hand, the Internet enhanced the power of the superstars. With the cost of each additional iteration of the product approaching zero, everybody will buy only from those they consider the very best.

There once was a market for artists who were imitative of the star musicians or writers. This niche is gone with the electrons. These semi-talented artists were subject to ridicule; they supplied the characters for comedy shows or Twilight Zone episodes, but they were able to earn a living. Today they give it away on Internet in the usually futile hope that their talent will be recompensed.

They may get significant numbers of fans or followers, but the currency of Internet fame rarely translates to real bucks in the pocket. There are enough winners in this game to keep the legions of suckers running the rat race, but it is a lot like basing your retirement planning on lottery tickets.

The danger is coming to teaching and universities with effective distance learning. We love the concept of being able to learn at our own rates, maybe to do so for free. This is great. But consider how it works. Take the Khan Academy. This is a great step forward in many ways. Millions of people will learn things they would not otherwise have known. A talented teacher like Sal Khan can reach millions of people. Never in a lifetime could he reach as many people as he can in a half-hour of recording. And this recording will never get tired. It can go on almost into infinity. It replaces millions of math and science teachers. It replaces millions of math and science teachers. Few of them were as innovative as Sal Khan, but they were part of a math and science community. The community which was once networked and diverse is now gone. Advocates will say that the Khan students are networked to each other and that is certainly one of the great strengths, but they are tied to the top.

Perhaps resistance is indeed futile and we should all assimilate into the greater good. More people will learn math or science. More people will hear great music or see great writing. But fewer people will be creating it. More correctly, lots of people will dronishly be creating things that nobody appreciates enough to pay for. A few, happy few, will be reaping the rewards of all this Zuckerburg style. Millions of Facebook users work for him and don't expect to get paid. In fact, most don't even know they are working for big Mark. I am not sure that Zukerberg knows they are working for him. He thinks he is giving them a free service. It is a perfect deception when even the deceivers are deceived.

I don't have a solution to propose. I am guilty myself; I am an enabler. A few hundred people will read this blog. I have never met most of you; none of you would be willing to pay me for what I write and I don't expect it. But I am aware of the dilemma. I am writing essays that in an earlier age would never be read by anybody at all. If I wanted to be "published" I would start with short essays or stories that few people would read, but my goal would be to find a big enough audience to make some money from writing. There would be a vetting process, but some people would make money for the type of thing I give away for free. I have a good job that makes me a "gentleman of leisure" who can engage in the luxury of writing w/o expectation of profit. But is it perhaps immoral NOT to make a profit? We dilettantes put would-be professionals out of business. Wouldn't it be better if some poor suckers with talent but w/o a day job could aspire?

Those of you who were amused enough to read to the end perhaps can answer the question. You spent a few minutes with me. Thank you. We shared ideas. That is great. But maybe the hour I took to write this and the minutes dozens of you took to read it put some poor slob out of work. Not only that, it used to support an industry of others who were paid for what they did, critics, editors, printers etc. Now it's just you and me. You can tell there is no editor. You can be a critic if you want, but you will get paid the same as I do and if you want to print this for any reason just push the button.

One of the promises of technology was that everybody could be published. But technology cannot promise that everybody will be read much less appreciated or paid.

I think we are seeing a kind of "Show businessization (new word)" of our world. Some actors and singers make fantastic fortunes, but the average actor or singer makes little or nothing from the profession. Many waitresses are aspiring singers and cab drivers have dreams of acting fame. The vast majority never succeed. It is not lack of talent alone. Many talented people never make it and some talent-free individuals become famous. There is a big element of luck, being in the right place at the right time. This is why all these aspirants spend time trying to be seen or kissing the asses of people who might give them a break. It is not pleasant and it is not a good society.

When you get this kind of competition, you end up with a tournament society where a few winners get fabulously successful and most of the others get bupkis. It is great in sports, movies and American Idol, but it is no way to live for most people.

BTW - I have been reading a book called Who owns the Future. That is what stimulated lots of these ideas and I suggest you read the book too. Give the guy a little money for his work and don't depend on the free media.

Maybe we should be willing to pay a little for what we take and don't expect somebody else to give it to us for free.

May 06, 2013

Dreaming of Spontaneity

It takes a lot of thought to be spontaneous, at least if you want to be effective.  I have been thinking about planning and achievement because it is EER season.  EERs are like some made for TV movies; they are inspired by a true story.  But a good story is not enough.  I am very interested in figuring out what exactly I had contributed to the significant success we achieved.  It is not only for personal aggrandizement.  I need an idea of what I contributed so that I can manage the process and improve it.  

If it is mostly just luck, I can do nothing except hope it continues.  If I just blundered into a good strategy, I need to know so that I can adapt it.   I think our success is a combination of luck, opportunity and a type of planning.  I say a type of planning because I don’t plan in the step-by-step way.  Actually, I sometimes do, but I don’t expect those exquisite but fragile plans to survive contact with reality.  

I plan less now than I did twenty years ago, but I think the planning is better. I don’t need to overt discipline I forced on myself earlier in my career for a few big reasons.  The first is that I can rely on my colleagues to protect me.  They do lots of the details and backstop for me.  Thanks.  Life has also become simpler because of technology.  Think of travel.  You don’t need to keep track of tickets anymore.  They are all online.  You can do your accounting online; actually the accounting is done for you online.  Many of the chores that were so hard for me are gone.  Life is easier.  But the big reason I don’t have to plan consciously is because I now have internalized the processes and I plan automatically in ways that I could not do before.  

At my level, almost all my planning is contingent.  It is not step by step and it is full of feedback loops.  What I learned in business school just doesn’t work.  I know that I sometimes give the impression that I am a mystic and/or I am just not paying attention.  This is not my intention but it comes with some advantages.  After they get to know me, people come to trust me, which is an important prerequisite.  My vagueness gives them license to innovate but their faith that I know where I am going provides direction.  Almost all of what I accomplish is done through others and returning to my original question, where do I add value? 

I think my main contribution is as a connector and a facilitator or shared vision. I say facilitator because it would be an oxymoron to claim to be a creator of a shared vision. A shared vision requires that participants share in its creation and then in its flexible implementation.  The better the shared vision, the more people want to be part and contribute, the less you can tell where your ideas and skills stop and those of others begin.  The more successful you are in facilitating the success, the less you can identify the parts you “did” but the better the results.  I guess it is a sort of mysticism.  

None of my teams greatest accomplishments at the end of this year could have been predicted in detail at the beginning.  They resulted from opportunities offered, taken and expanded. We knew where we wanted to be and we developed a range of tools and skills and then waited for the chance to use them.  

All greatness is based on contradiction and we should not try to resolve all contradictions and tension. Contradiction and tension are the fonts of creativity.  But I will add that in addition to being creative, you really have to be excellent first in some basics. I worked hard to get my basic skills up to standard.  Without my capacity in Portuguese, I could not be successful here. My basic ability to understand accounting procedures made it possible to work with budgets. Things like this make a difference too.  The poetry of creativity needs to be based on a prosaic base, else it comes to nothing.  I suppose that is the difference between dreaming and making them happen.

Of course, in my EER I sound a bit less tentative and more take charge than I do above. As I said, it is inspired by a true story and reads a little more coherently than it was lived.

March 18, 2013

America will be back

Even a casual student of history finds that in almost every period of our history contemporaries decried the dissention in the Senate or the House. (In recently read biographies of Lincoln, Coolidge and Lyndon Johnson - 50, 90 & 150 years ago seem very much like today.) But the strength of America comes from the bottom, not the top and most of the innovation comes from outside the Beltway.

The president and congress might sometimes suck, but they are not all there is to America. The "Economist" has a survey of the America that works - the states and the American people. Articles start at this link. States are the laboratories of democracy and their ability to experiment has been one of the open secrets of America's success for more than 200 years.

Others are indeed catching up, and this is good. It is about time those freeloaders started to pull their own weight, but biggest research nation in the world. We account for a full 31% of all the research done in the world. This is down from an astonishing 38% in 1999 and the absolute dollar amount of research dropped a little in the last five years, but we still are clearly #1 in research.

Research shows the effectiveness of the U.S. mixed system. Government supplies around 31% of research dollars. But the private-public interface is important. For example, one of the greatest innovations of recent decades is fracking for gas. This is a mixture of government-funded basic research, made practical business. The Department of Energy since the 1970s, it only started to work in the 1990s when the private sector made it work.

Shale gas is another big plus for America. The Marcellus already supports over 100,000 jobs in Pennsylvania and this expected to reach to over 220,000 in 2020. Shale gas gave the local economy a $14 billion boost in 2012. Economists at Citibank estimate that shale gas by itself will add a half percentage point to the U.S. GDP EACH year for the next couple of years. Unconventional oil and gas accounted for $238 billion in economic activity, 1.7m jobs and $62 billion in taxes in 2012. Now that is a true stimulus. link

We don't give up on the federal government, but we need to understand that it will usually be more the consumer than the creator of innovation or wealth. And the Feds can get in the way. The "Economist" has a way of making fun of things in very clever ways. I like this one:

"Proliferating red tape is causing tangles everywhere, from the 400 subsidiary regulations of the Dodd-Frank law on the financial sector to the 140,000 codes the federal government requires hospitals to use for the ailments they treat, including one for injuries from being hit by a turtle."

Good to know there is a protocol for man-turtle encounters, but imagine the time that went into writing and promulgating those regulations.

But America will go ahead. I have confidence that America will outlast the current hard times. We will be back ... again.

February 18, 2013

I regret little, I would change still less.

I wanted to come to Brazil to do a good job, to produce excellence – a simple goal.   I thought that I might have a chance of doing that in Brazil, since I had earlier experience here.  I was lucky enough to be assigned far in advance and could prepare for more than a year and a half.  That is a very rare luxury in the FS.   I think I used the time well.  I relearned Portuguese and did it better than before, read a lot about the country and even memorized all the state capitals.  I am halfway through my time in Brazil. Unfortunately, I feel no closer to the goal than the day I arrived.

The challenge with pursuing excellent comes not with the pursuit itself as much with identifying the target.  Most of the time you are not sure where you should go and when you find a goal it is a lot like trying to find the end of the rainbow.  It recedes as you approach, or vanishes entirely.  Switching metaphors, it is like trying to grasp smoke.

As I wrote in before, one reason why student business leaders or lawyers think that decisions are easy is because they work with case studies.  They can almost always figure them out faster and better than the people actually involved, but that misses the point.  The hardest part is not solving the problem but rather formulating the problem in the first place.   In other words, once you know what to do, how you do it tends to mostly a technical matter of applying known techniques.

This is what makes excellence more often a pursuit than an accomplishment.  I certainly do not want to denigrate that actual technique of solving problems.  All of the time doing things right is necessary for success and often it is also sufficient by itself.  Many problems are well-defined and known. I think of it as the difference between leadership and management, with the latter doing things right and the former doing the right things.

Besides knowing where excellence is, the other permutation is knowing if you did it.  Success in big things always has lots of participants.  You really cannot take credit because so many others are working on it in their own ways. I fall back on my old forestry analogy.  Most success comes from planting the right things in the right places with the right preparation.  After that, much of the next 30-40 years is baked in.  But the trees are growing according to their natures.  We can take no ongoing credit for what they are doing and of course it is possible to mess things up.  Some management is required, but too much activity can be worse than none at all. I think this is another lesson.  It is sometimes important to be involved and sometimes important not to be.

I am drifting into the stream of consciousness.  Speaking of my pursuit of excellence, I think I am just going to give up on the final goal and just do the right things, as far as I can tell what the right things are, as I find them, work more with a process rather than a plan.   If I build the capacity to identify and take advantage of opportunities, I think that will be excellence always present but never achieved.   

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

BTW - my title and last line come from " Andrea del Sarto," a poem by Robert Browning about a poet who possessed great technical skill but never found subject matter sufficient to make him great.  It is much like I am talking about above with the how versus the what.

December 08, 2012

Decisions, real and imaginary

Pig and chicken 

When I worked on case studies in school, I always wondered why real life decision makers could not see the solutions as easily as we students could. The simple answer was that they did not have all the facts that we did.  A slightly more  sophisticated explanation was that they did not have all the fact laid out for them as we did.  But the biggest reason was that we were merely answering questions, whereas they need to determine what questions to ask and what values to prioritize.

How to do something is often much clearer than knowing what to do. Understanding what to do, in turn, depends on a deep understanding of the environment and the available options and then figuring out the essence of the problem. This is the hard part and the part we often skip over or refuse to do. We want to jump in and get to the serious work of deciding. Most of us have limited patience with framing the problem and parameters. Thinking about the problems looks too much like inactivity. Once you got that down, however, solutions often seem self-evident.

Case studies are easier than real life because all the heavy intellectual lifting has been done and the problem simplified, defined.  It is the same reason that people looking backward from today often can't understand the dilemmas faced by people looking forward in the past, why most people are much more successful in theoretical retrospect than they are in the here and now. Of course, figuring out the solution in an academic sense is much easier than making it work in the real world, but that is another story.

My picture shows a pig and chicken in Acre. It is not unrelated to my text. One of my management maxims is to to separate  commitment from mere involvement. You can tell the difference when you look at  your ham and eggs breakfast. The chicken is only involved; the pig is committed.

October 17, 2011

Innovation in Rio Grande do Sul

TecnoPuc campus with Dell Computer 

I have visited technology parks north and south of Brazil.  There is a difference that I would liken to newly transplanted trees and ones that have been growing in the same place for a long time.  I was very impressed with what I saw in Recife & Salvador.  They are developing. 

TecnoPucWhat I saw in Porto Alegre at is TecnoPuc like a developed mature and productive forest with all the complex interrelationship that implies.   TecnoPuc is (PUC - Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre's Science and Technology Park, with 5.4 hectares area located on PUCRS' main campus in Porto Alegre, an area of more than 70 ha, 30,000 students, 1,600 faculty and 4,800 staff. You can read the details at the link.

TecnoPuc is housed on the grounds of what used to be a military base. This turns out to have lots of the things you need for a technology park, since the buildings are set up to allow both concentration and dispersal.  The tall building on the side is rental and incubation space for smaller and start-up firms. More established ones rent whole floors or buildings.

TecnoPuc TB studies 

Students & professors from PUC in Rio Grande do Sul play an active role with the firms at TecnoPuc, providing the essential cross fertilization we find in successful technology areas such as Silicon Valley, Massachusetts Route 128 or the Research Triangle in North Carolina.  Lots of people have studied the innovation hotbed idea and the exact ingredients are unknown, but they always include a strong university and a concentration of talent.   The Internet has not yet substituted for the magic of geographical proximity.  There is something about just being close to other innovators that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I think this interactive ingredient is the hardest to duplicate in a new area.  Authorities try to implant such innovation centers in poor areas; most fail because they don’t attract enough of the right people and ideas, despite wonderful buildings and various tax breaks and incentives.  Sometimes they succeed in attracting the big names of the past decade rather than developing the talent of the next.

TecnoPuc HP 

I return to my forestry metaphor I started with.  (I know that I go back to the ecology analogies very often, but those are the ones I understand best and I think they apply best.)  I can try to plant the best trees, but there are all sorts of other things at work that I don’t control or even understand.  A forest can fail for reasons I just don’t know exist, or they can succeed also for reasons I don’t understand.  Nevertheless, people will take credit and or try to learn and copy.  

Of course, there is the element of leadership.  This is often obscured in the case of innovation areas, where we often tend to think success just happens “spontaneously.” There is often someone with vision present at the creation, usually a group of them making good and forward looking decision. Let me take my forestry example again.  Initial decisions create problems or benefits for dozens or even hundreds of years long after the decision and decision makers are forgotten. 

Every successful innovation center I have ever seen is in pleasant natural surroundings. Who can say if this is the cause or effect or an interaction of both.  Successful firms can afford to create nice surroundings, which attracts good people and maybe makes them more productive. But it is the success that is the most important in creating more success, not the surrounding. Otherwise the prettiest places would also be the most productive and they are not. 

We are taken in by a form of “survivor bias”. We find the successful places and then project backwards to the reasons, ignoring those with similar characteristics that did not succeed, often not even knowing of their existence. 

The TecnoPuc success provides a good example. When we look back, we can see all the reasons why success was inevitable.  But if you were looking forward from a quarter century ago, it would not look so certain. 

The people I met at TecnoPuc talked about visiting similar innovation centers in the U.S. as a voluntary visitor group.  IMO, this would help both them and those they visited in the U.S.  I encouraged them to be in touch with their Brazilian colleagues at places like CETENE & CESAR, among others.  We would have a much easier time organizing a great program for a more diverse group.  They already know each other and I hope we can broker a good connection between my new Brazilian friends and my fellow innovative Americans.  In my small part in my forestry metaphor maybe I am the squirrel who carries an acorn.  

The pictures show some of the firms at TecnoPuc. You can see HP and Dell. The other picture shows a place where they are studying cures from Tuberculosis that require fewer doses and less time. One of the biggest challenges in public health related to TB is that the course of medicine must be followed to the end. But people feel better after half the course and they sometimes wander off. This not only makes the person sick again, but helps develop "super bugs", strains of TB that can resist the medicines used against them. This is a nightmare scenario.  The medicines have to get all the germs, so that some cannot escape and adapt. A shorter series would make this more achievable for more people.  

October 16, 2011

Teach a Man to Fish & Increase the Fish Supply

Port at Porto Alegre 

The difference between philanthropy and charity is in that old saying about teaching a man to fish versus just giving him a fish. But you can apply even more leverage if you can increase the capacity of the trainers or augment the general effectiveness of sustainable fishing. Doing lasting good requires a systemic approach to problems.

Green roof in Porto Alegre 

When I talked to people at  Parceiros Voluntários, I recognized that they were thinking systemically and I was not really surprised when the organization’s president, Maria Elena Pereira Johannpeter brought up Peter Senge.  We had a common connection.

I read Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, back in the 1990s. It was a book that changed my outlook on work; it was one of those books that tells you things you think your already knew, but in a better form. The idea I took from the book was that organizations work as a set of interconnected sub-systems, so decisions made in one place have implications for the other parts. It sounds simple and ecological; a forestry guy like me likes these kinds of ideas, but it is hard to apply in practice, hard to consider the whole system. I still use often a formulation from the book, “sometimes thing go wrong not in spite of but because of our best efforts.” Working harder can be ineffective and sometimes make you lose ground. It is usually better to remove or smooth obstacles than to just push harder against them and it is best to figure out the path that avoids most obstacles in the first place. Simple wisdom that is hard to implement and it is impossible even to attempt w/o looking at the whole system and understanding its complex interactions. I used to think a lot about these things.

Parceiros Voluntários works on a systemic basis. Their goal to apply their effort at the points of maximum leverage, to work bottom up to encourage citizens to volunteer (something not common until recently in Brazil’s often top-down society) & then to help train and deploy those volunteers so that they can be effective – creating capacities and then enhancing them.

Part of their philosophy would be familiar to Alexis de Tocqueville. They favor individuals and groups acting voluntarily within their own communities, solving problems with their own means in their own sphere of action, managing their own development w/o regard to bureaucracies or higher authorities except where absolutely necessary.

I don’t believe it is mere coincidence that an organization like this took root first in Rio Grande do Sul. This state has a tradition of self-reliance and the inhabitants – the Gauchos – emphasize their independence.  But Parceiros Voluntários is expanding beyond RGS and setting up cooperative operations in the states of Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.   

Decentralized, voluntary organizations are a more flexible response to complex challenges we face. They can adapt much more readily and w/o the power of coercion, they can disappear when their time is past w/o a great disruption. America has lots of experience with such organizations.  It is one of the things that has made our society great.  It is great that Brazil develops them too. 

BTW - that teach a man to fish has a different ending.  Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will sit on the lake and drink beer all day. 

The top picture shows some port facilities on the Guaíba River from the offices of Parceiros Voluntários. The name Porto Alegre implies a port and there is one, but not a seaport. Porto Alegre is far from the sea, but ships can reach the sea via Lagoa dos Patos, a vast, shallow flowage. The port used to be a bigger deal in the old days than it is today. The port of Rio Grande, which is actually one the ocean, makes a better outlet for agricultural products of the region. The picture below is a green roof on the restaurant at the Theatro Sao Pedro.

August 14, 2011


Fortaleza beach in Brazil 

CENTENE (see link) has the challenge of getting science into common use.  Centro de Estudos e Sistemas Avançados do Recife (C.E.S.A.R.) does that as its primary task.  Its job is innovation or more correctly translating innovation into profitable and sustainable enterprises. I talked to Claudia Cunha and asked her what she meant when she used the term innovation. This is not a simple question. Innovation is one of those terms that everybody loves but sometimes defines in different ways and often when people say innovation, they mean totally new products, but don’t include the actual application. I was pleased to see that we agreed on the more inclusive definition. Innovation, of course, includes new technologies or processes, but it also includes different ways of using old things or organizational changes that increase productivity. And it always means actually bringing improvements outside the think tank or the laboratory.

Fortaleza in Brazil 

As a sidebar we talked a little about the challenges of productivity in the recent economic downturn.  All wealth creation is ultimately based on productivity, but productivity means that you can produce more of the things you want with fewer inputs of time, materials or labor. In other words, productivity – in the short run – costs jobs.  More precisely, productivity improvements  costs jobs in existing enterprises and in existing clusters, while creating them in other places where they might not be seen as the result of productivity, not a good argument for politicians. This is a problem as old as innovation, but it is worth thinking about it all the time when arguing for more productivity.


CESAR is an incubator and a consultant. It works with existing firms (such as Motorola, Samsung, Vivo, Oi, Positivo, Dell, Visanet, Bematech, Bradesco, Unibanco, Banco Central do Brasil, Siemens, Philips, CHESF e Agência Nacional de Águato and others) to  improve their products and processes. It also provides financing, incubates and then sells off startups. We couldn’t talk about all the aspects of the work. They maintain strict separation of lines of endeavor, since they are working with proprietary information. 

Suffice to say that this is another non-profit that makes a good living. They want to have “profit” in order to do more.  Profit, after all, is the price of survival. The CESAR method has been successful in Pernambuco and now has been established also in CESAR Sul, in Curitiba, Paraná. I don’t know why they still call is CESAR.  Maybe it should be CESAPR (for Paraná). 

My pictures are not from CESAR. They didn't want me to take pictures, lest I inadvertently reveal some proprietary information.  The pictures are Fortaleza, where I made a stop on the way to Manaus. I got them from the plane just before they made us turn off electrical devices, which I learned includes cameras. This is still in the Northeast (CESAR's district) so I figured it was appropriate enough. Up top is a low rent district that still has a nice sea access.  Below is the city itself and finally are some windmills taking advantage of the steady winds. 

April 30, 2011

Different Skill Sets

Nobody likes to do everything or is equally competent in all areas. I understand that and I am reminded again now that I am working in the press office.  I needed a place to stay from now until I go to Brazil and they needed someone to fill in, so that is what I am doing.  It is the kind of exciting job that they might make into a TV show.  We have urgent challenges, big personalities and short deadlines. Yesterday, for example, we worked on the press surrounding the extradition of a Mexican drug lord, statements from high level meetings and various other hot items.  It is a truly essential job but I don’t like it.

Some of my colleagues love it and I can understand why. I get to be close to important people and events and, in time, I could probably convince myself that I am an important person too. But it is a “machine bureaucracy” where you are most successful to the extent that you can maintain the integrity of the hierarchy and the procedures. 

We often speak of bureaucracies in pejorative terms, but the reason all literate human societies have developed bureaucracies is that they work wonderfully within their areas of expertise. If you need to control events there is nothing better, providing that conditions are reasonably predictable within the accountability of the bureaucracy and you have the resources to make it work. I can affirm that we have a great bureaucracy.  Nothing gets lost. Information passes efficiently through the system; decisions are made and promulgated.  The machine works. The question really is not whether or not a bureaucracy works; it does. It is rather where and when the bureaucracy is the appropriate tool for the task.*

I am able to do the work and I am willing to do it because it needs to be done. I got all that language training that I loved, so it is fair to do some of the more bureaucratic tasks.  As I said, some people love that sort of work and many think I am crazy for loving the language training. I suppose people should do the things that they do well. I will be glad when I can get back to doing the things I am better at doing, the things I like to do. It won't be long.

Give a man a hammer and every problem starts looking like a nail. That phrase comes from Abraham Maslow and a lot of my understanding of bureaucracy comes from Henry Mintzberg.  I don’t pretend to be a scholar on this, so this is my extrapolation from their ideas.   One problem for bureaucracy is that it grows and applies rules to inappropriate situations.  But the bigger problem is that most humans don’t adapt well to highly-rule based system.  It is essentially not a human system.   If you want to see an ideal bureaucratic system, look at a computer program.  A computer automates many of the machine bureaucratic functions, which is good, since it frees people for the tasks that they are better at doing.

January 09, 2011

The Light Bulb Goes Off

The great Ronald Reagan said that you could accomplish almost anything as long as you don't care who gets credit. Of course Reagan was not the first person to say that. It is almost impossible to trace an idea to its "source" because there really is no one source. Ideas don't pass unchanged through the people who hold them and none of us ever has a truly original thought, which is why we might not fight so hard to take or give credit.
I proudly proclaim that I have never in my life had a truly original thought. I am well educated. The chief benefit of education is that you tap into the accumulated wisdom of other people, places and other generations. I spend a lot of time reading with the specific goal of appropriating the ideas of others. I cannot keep them straight. I often cannot remember where I picked them up and I mix them together in ways that complicate provenance. It doesn't bother me, although I suppose that some people of deceive themselves about their own originality might be upset that I "stole" their ideas. Footnotes have always been a challenge for me. 

The image of the lone genius coming up with a great breakthrough was always mostly mythical. Innovative ideas are created when they bounce off and recombine with each other. (Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist characterizes it as ideas having sex and producing synergistic offspring. His book, BTW, is among those I have assimilated in the Borg-like fashion I mentioned above.) They do not do well when they are contained in a single mind, the more people involved in an idea, the better.

I have little patience with the careful parsing of credit. That is a reason I had to flee academia, where the first ¾ of any research consists of summarizing and discussing the lineage of all the ideas you will be considering in the second-last paragraph of your thesis. It is just an awful long run for a very short slide and beyond that it does not reflect how people think or ideas are born outside the ivory tower.

Let me break my credit rule again by referring to another book I recently read called Where Good Ideas Come From. If you follow the link, you will find a good illustrated summary of the main ideas of the book, which saves me the need to write it all down here. The summary does not include, however, the point that in an academic sense I would give him credit for. That is that many people have similar ideas when faced with similar challenges and similar opportunities. Of course, this is not a new idea. I wrote a post with some of the same thoughts before I read the book and I think before the book was published. It kind of proves the point about ideas flowing around.

You can also look at the TED Lecture. If you are unfamiliar with TED lectures, you might want to take a look; they are usually interesting. On an unrelated note, one of my favorites was on the intelligence of crows.

Johnson gives some good examples. The most famous is probably Darwin and Wallace, who came up with the theory of evolution completely independently about the same time. The idea was gestating around in general at the time. Thinking up the theory was made possible by scientific advances that made analysis of species possible, by floods of communications that spread that knowledge and, not inconsequentially, by the society that had developed in the West that would not stone or burn anybody who published such ideas as infidels or heretics. In short, a person living in the 15th Century anywhere in the world or even living in the 19th Century anyplace else probably could not have thought of the details of the theory of evolution at all or, if he had managed the thought, would have died in a nasty way shortly after revealing it to anybody else.

When I studied anthropology and ancient history, we used to refer to diffusion. This was the concept that ideas and technologies were created in some place, in ancient history usually the Mesopotamia or Anatolia, and then they were carried - diffused - to other parts of the world. This led to a linear type of history, where your attention is first drawn to Sumer in southern Mesopotamia and then you move the "center" of civilization to northern Mesopotamia, expand it to include the Eastern Mediterranean, then to Greece, then Rome. After that you move to the Empire of the Franks, then to England and finally you end up in America.

Of course, I am conflating diffusion with an ethnocentric historical perspective, but diffusion is essentially an ethnocentric historical perspective and it is based on that bogus concept that ideas are invented and then spread, rather than the more correct one that ideas spread and then they are invented. (This diffusion thing gets even worse, BTW. Some people believe that space aliens came around and "seeded" ideas)

It is not exclusive. It is likely that people in different places, faced with similar challenges and opportunities came up with similar adaptations. It is also likely that when they came in contact with other ideas the mixed, matched and innovated. So did the use of particular tools, pottery or agricultural techniques spread through diffusion from originating centers or did they develop in many places at once? The answer is yes.

So the academic exercise of trying to find the "origins" can be fun, but it is isn't much use.

Next year we will essentially outlaw the traditional incandescent light bulb, and with it the long-time symbol of innovation and new ideas. We all learned that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but there are always wise guys who point out that he didn't. They are right. The Greeks invented light bulbs almost 3000 years ago. The problem is that they didn't work. Who had the basic idea first doesn't really count for much. It matters who can make it work and make it useful. The greatest innovators are not those who have the best new ideas, but rather those who can figure out how to make ideas work for themselves and others and those who can reformulate ideas into new mixes.

All ideas are old in their basic form. I am convinced that the Greeks, Chinese or Native Americans (if you want to be PC) pretty much thought of everything on a basic level. If you want to say that the concept of a chariot of the gods is essentially the same as the space shuttle, you are being silly and impractical but you have a nerdly rhetorical point. Just don't take that kind of thing to seriously and don't get annoyed when you don't get credit for having useful ideas.

January 04, 2011

More Thoughts on Telework

I used to manage a professional staff of around forty-five, most of whom telecommuted twice a week. Telecommuting is not appropriate for all jobs, but in the jobs where it is possible workers can be more productive away from the office. We have to get used to it, anyway, since President Obama signed into law the Telework Enhancement Act.

I wrote a lot about this on other occasions, in response to an an NPR story on Results Only Work Environments and when we was all kept at home by snow storms.

The bottom line for me is that telecommuting is a good thing that can improve morale and productivity. Take a look at the linked article and the links in it for the pluses But there are caveats & I believe that my experience managing telecommuting as well as telecommuting myself, sometimes between continents, give me some insights, which I can share.

One non-obvious thing that is necessary for telecommuting is a degree of arbitrariness.Some people can handle telecommuting; others cannot. The manager of telecommuters has an additional responsibility to use judgment to make reasonable distinctions among employees. This is very difficult to do. You will often be accused of being arbitrary or unfair.

Those that abuse telecommuting usually can come up with good excuses for why they couldn’t complete their work on time. A good manager cannot let them get away with it. It is unfair to the good workers. What I have seen too often, unfortunately, is an abdication of responsibility in the name of “fairness”. Managers either ignore the transgressions or they punish the innocent and guilty alike with onerous rules and restrictions.

Managers also have to get used to looking for results instead of “face time”. Most managers claim they are interested in results, but they reward presence. Beyond that, although few will admit it, many managers like to have people around that they can boss. We also have to admit that a properly designed telecommuting program may mean that we need fewer middle managers. The organization afforded by technologies can to some extent replace the organization provided by middle management.

Still thinking of this from the manager’s point of view, we have to learn not to ask too much from our good teleworkers. Flexibility is one of the advantages to telecommuting, but some managers think that flexibility means stretching work hours to … forever.

I learned this myself by my own mistakes. I work odd hours and my work and my leisure overlap, i.e. I actually enjoy many of the parts of my work, so I do them in my free time too. I used to check my email when I woke up in the morning and before going to bed at night. When I saw something that needed to be done, I would often make my comments and send it off to whoever was going to have to handle it the next day. What I quickly learned is that my best colleagues also checked their work early and late. They also sometimes took my comments as commands to get the work done right away.

People follow the lead of the boss. The boss often enjoys his work and doesn’t mind – even likes – long hours. More importantly, the boss is in control. He/she doesn’t feel the same stress that the subordinate does. When I sent along a comment, all I meant was that it would be a good idea to work on this tomorrow morning, or maybe just think about. When my colleagues got my midnight message, they thought it was an urgent command. It is a smaller version of the Henry II “command” about Thomas a-Becket.

I finally had to make a rule that nobody was supposed to touch their office work between 8pm and 7am. I know that people looked at the work. I did. But I didn’t send or respond to any emails.

This brings me to my last caveat. Telecommuting is part of the whole technology-social media world. It brings with it the same danger of magnifying the trivial, flattening priorities and destroying the whole idea of actual deliberation. The instant nature of communications creates the illusion of knowledge. It is tempting to act before you have all the information you need for smart decisions. We are tempted to see trends where none exist.

We used to have a saying that you should “sleep on” any hard decision. This gives you time to put things in perspective and it remains a good idea in many cases, but it is much harder to do and much harder to separate the important from the merely urgent when you are awash with information.

Teleworking is more than just letting people work at home or cutting the commuting time. It is not just something that can be tacked onto a workweek, like pinning a tail on the donkey. It requires a system wide adjustment. Some people will thrive in a telework environment; others not so much. It is a bigger change than most people think and a bigger opportunity.

August 13, 2010

Focus on What You Do & Tell us How you Did it

More from my promotion boards experience.

It is very important to describe positions well.  Generics just don’t do it. Never accept the same description as your predecessor or the same one that “like” officers have.  For example, saying that your PRT is one of 31 PRTs in Iraq w/o saying much (or anything) about the particulars is unhelpful and, IMO, indicates a certain intellectual flabbiness.  Also be very clear about who you manage, how many and what they do. Recognize that quality and diversity count.  Managing 100 low level employees who all do well established and similar things may not take as much leadership as running an operation with ten colleagues doing a variety of changing duties.

Experience counts in similar ways. It is possible – and I have seen – people get twenty years worth of experience in five years. It is also possible to get five (or less) years of experience in twenty years. Some people just repeat the same sorts of things. I suppose they are getting better at doing them, but it doesn’t add much to experience. It reminds me of watching CNN and hearing them claim that they have 24 hours of news each day. No.  What they often have is a half hour of news 48 times a day. Watching an endlessly repeating loop of the same event doesn’t add much to understanding. Experience can be that way too.

Of course, there is a caveat. There is always a caveat. You need to develop expertise and some specialties. Beyond that, simple variety also does not produce useful experience.  Focus is important. Ideally, experience should build on previous experience creating a capacity to do and understand more. Change for the sake of change makes no more sense that the opposite. 

Experience teaches, but learning is not automatic. If things just happen to you and you don’t think about them it may be useless energy spent. I was impressed when I could see how people learned from experience and applied it in analogous situations. This demonstrated not only that the experience was good, but also that the individual had the ability to reason by analogy and make reasonable distinctions among situations.

Finally, I am reminded of what Mark Twain said about not learning more lessons from an experience than it has to teach. The cat that sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again; of course he will not sit on a cool one either. 

August 12, 2010

Getting Good from the Group while Avoiding Groupthink

The panel works a lot like a jury is supposed to work; it aggregates the experience of a reasonably well informed group, sometimes tapping into expertise that single individuals could not use.  Our group had five senior FSOs from various cones and with various career paths, alone with one member of the public for proper leavening. We made special efforts NOT to fall into either groupthink, where we have too much early consensus, or chaos, where we don’t achieve consensus at all. This meant initially ranking files w/o deliberation and then voting on those we thought were high, low or middle. 

I was surprised how often we came independently to similar conclusions. There were often overwhelming majorities on one side or the other. We discussed some of them briefly as a form of quality control. Perhaps more interesting than the near unanimity of the results was the fact that often the reasons for the decisions were very different. This made me more confident of the decision, since each person bringing his/her experience to bear on the aspect of the decision they knew the best had led to this aggregated decision. 

Of course, there were some close votes and those required more deliberation. Nobody tried to dominate the group, but each member came to be recognized as having particular expertise in some things.  I, for example, had more experience in public diplomacy and in running PRTs and that experience helped me understand if particular claims or achievements were really significant or just things that would have happened anyway. I could also point to instances where officers had tried very hard to achieve a very difficult goal and even in failure had demonstrated the characteristics we are looking for in our senior leadership. We tried not to penalize innovators, even if their reach sometimes exceeded their grasp, but of course you have to draw distinctions between innovation and recklessness. This is not always as clearly evident as we might like. I was glad to contribute my own expertise and grateful that my fellow board members also brought a lot to the table.

I believe we made good decisions and that our group decision was better than any one of us could have done alone.

June 28, 2010

Due Dilligence v Data Sufficiency

Studies show that you feel more confident about a decision as the amount of information you have grows.  Unfortunately, the same studies show that increasing information does improves decision making at a diminishing rate and at some point, usually around seven discrete pieces of decision criteria information, the efficacy of decision making actually declines.  But confidence continues to rise. It is usually a bad thing when confidence overtakes capability.

I am facing this problem all day, every day, on my promotion panels. I take this responsibility very seriously and I feel empathy with everyone I am judging.  Aways I am looking for the additional piece of information that will make my decision more certain and my certainty grows with each additional fact I find.  But then I recall the science on human decision making.  Perhaps my certainty is unjustified and undesirable.  I feel better about what I am doing but I am not doing any better.

Seven is the magic number or maybe the logical limit.  It is no coincidence that many thing in literature and myth come in sevens.  You have the seven deadly sins, seven wonders of the world, seven samurai, seven habits of highly effective people, seven voyages of Sinbad etc.  It is also why telephone numbers originally had a maximum of seven digits, of course broken up into smaller subsets.  Our minds simply aren’t well designed to keep lots of information both available and sorted.  We are not the logical decision makers portrayed in the movies and maybe in our own minds.

So we make lots of our decisions using heuristics – rules of thumb roughly derived from experience and previous successful decisions.  These work fairly well if the current situation is well understood and analogous to past ones and if we are aware that we are indeed using these rules, so that we can make appropriate allowance and adjustments.  I think a lot of this is happening in our judgments.   I also believe that it is working reasonably well because of the diverse and relevant experience represented on our board.  Of course, I have to keep reminding myself about that problem of growing confidence and declining effectiveness.

Sometimes you just know all you can. It may not seem enough, but it is time to decide. All decisions are made under conditions of some uncertainty. Otherwise there is no need to make a judgement.

Our scope for serious errors is not great. Almost all the people we are considering are well qualified.  Beyond that, we reach fair convergence among those near the top and the bottom of the distribution. This tends to happen BEFORE we talk it through, so it is not based on overt groupthink. Since the numbers of promoted and low ranked are relatively small percentages of the total, I think we can be confident that most of those “belong” or “deserve” to be where they ended up.  I worry a little about those right near the cusps.  But I don’t see any way to increase effectiveness, although it is pretty easy to increase confidence.

June 22, 2010

Intuition in Decision Making

ChimpI said that I wished I had done promotion panels before, but in many ways this could not have come at a better time. Almost every file I read gives me some ideas and examples (sometimes negative sometimes positive) of what I should do to prepare for my post in Brazil and what I should do when I get there.  Reading file after file and being able to compare various activities, personalities and responses over diverse situations has been an excellent “case study” education.

We did case studies in business school and the method is generally used in most professions for good reason. It provides the benefits of experience w/o having to suffer all the hard knocks it would take to get it yourself. Of course, in many ways it is not as good as personal experience, but it does have some advantages (besides knock avoidance).  

When you read through lots of cases, you can discern patterns. You develop a kind of intuition. Intuition has a mysterious connotation, but it doesn’t have to. Intuition develops as you get familiar with many situations and many patterns.  You cannot always explain why you know something and intuition has an aspect of a feeling, which is why it is seen as mysterious. I don’t think you should rely on intuition alone, if you can gather facts and make distinctions. You should use all available tools to make important decision, but developing a feeling for patterns should be one of the tools. This is wisdom.

Along with intuition comes the capacity to reason by analogy. This is another “mysterious” process that people often cannot quantify. They just see the connections or the similarities.  Many great ideas and successful ventures start off when somebody reasons by analogy. As with intuition, this methods should also be tested and supported by facts and analysis. I call this “due diligence.” I am actually using the term technically incorrectly, but it conveys to me the need to check out assumptions even when you don’t think there is much need to do so. I think it is good to make very clear the nature of the analogy and how the new situation is similar AND different.   

If you have a successful pattern, it is tempting to use it everywhere you can. This is a solution in search of a problem. Give a man a hammer and everything starts to look like a nail. People are often enthusiastic about  intuition because it can mean not having to do the hard work of thinking. Careful analysis can compensate for this enthusiasm.

With these caveats, intuition and reasoning by analogy are very powerful tools that deserve more respect than they sometimes get.    

May 13, 2010

A Nation the Makes and Builds Things

Can Americans still make stuff? Do we have excellent companies that operate w/o a lot of debt, stick to their business and operate with a lean staff? Can we Americans reinvent ourselves again? I think so.

Nucor headquarters in Charlotte, NC

C&J attended the annual shareholders’ meeting of Nucor steel. We have owed a few shares of Nucor since the early 1990s, but this is the first time we have attended a shareholders’ meeting of any kind. Despite our lowly very small shareholder status (we own 200 shares out of the 315 million shares outstanding), everybody was friendly to us. The CEO spoke to us and seemed to remember our names. The chief financial officer took a few minutes to explain the Nucor philosophy.

I bought Nucor nearly twenty years ago because I liked the philosophy of the company. I read about Nucor and its famous CEO Ken Iverson in In Search of Excellence when I was in B-school, but it took me around six years to pay off my student loans and be able to invest in anything at all besides paying off loans. After all those years, it still seems to be an excellent firm. There are more than 20,000 employees, but the firm is run with a corporate staff of around seventy-five. Top executives do not get company cars, corporate jets, executive dining rooms or even executive parking places at the headquarters. Nucor is headquartered in Charlotte, a medium sized city and its operations are generally located in small towns and rural areas, where costs are lower and American work ethics strong.

Nucor was an American pioneer of electrical arc furnaces, which let it run smaller and less expensive mills called mini-mills. While the big steel was literally rusting away, Nucor’s mini-mills were making steel in America that could compete internationally. These mills can easily process and recycle scrap and steel is the most recycled material on earth. Nucor recycles a ton of scrap every two seconds.

The Harvard Business review rated Nucor CEO Daniel DiMicco and the management team as one of the best in the world, pointing out that the list of the best CEOs overlapped very little with the list of the most admired or the most highly paid.

The economic downturn has hurt Nucor too. The firm made a profit every year from 1966 through 2008, but lost money last year, although made money again in the fourth quarter. Nucor’s cost structure is highly variable and counter cyclical, i.e. the prices of scrap metal and energy tend to decline when the economy declines. This has helped Nucor stay profitable through hard times - until this last year, of course.

Companies like Nucor show that Americans can still make big, heavy industrial things profitably. This is the example I have, but I know there are many others. As I wrote above, I first learned about Nucor when I read In Search of Excellence. That was back in 1983, when America was going through hard times as we are today. There was a crisis of confidence and many people thought that our best days were behind us. They were wrong. Americans know how to reinvent themselves. We did it before – many times – and we can do it again and we will do it again.

May 12, 2010

Buying Stocks

Please note that I am on the road w/o the cord to download pictures. I can update the blog, but I will have to add the pictures later, so stop back if you want to see the pictures that go with the trip.  

I drive down I-85 all the time on the way to the tree farms, but I never go south of South Hill, VA. As far as my personal experience goes, the world could just end ten miles south. I would have no way of telling. Well today I went a bit farther and I can report that it looks a lot the same.

We drove down to Charlotte, NC to attend the annual stockholders’ meeting of NUCOR Steel. I have never been to a stockholders’ meeting before, so I thought I would enjoy the experience. My shares are worth almost nothing in the great scheme of things, but they still have to let you in even if you own only one share.  

NUCOR is one of the first stocks I bought in the early 1990s and one of the few that I still own from that time.  It grows reasonably well and pays a regular dividend, but that is not why I bought it. I liked NUCOR because I read so much about it in the business books I used to love. NUCOR is a mini-mill steel producer.  They were profitable at times when other American steel giants were rusting away. The CEO at the time, a guy called Ken Iverson, was one of the saints of the B-School set.  He was smart and innovative. He ran his front office with only a staff of a couple dozen, lean and agile.

Investing in stock was a great education for me.  It is much more interesting to look at companies when you have a stake, no matter how small, in the outcomes.  I no longer invest in individual firms. I don’t know enough about it anymore and other interests (mostly forestry) have dulled my never particularly acute business acumen.  It is better for somebody like me to stick to indexing.  But I still keep a few of the original stocks, among them NUCOR, which I admit I keep more for tradition than investment, as long as they do acceptably well.  

My most productive firm has been Vale do Rio Dolce, a Brazilian company that mines ore and exports a lot of it to China, so it has done well over the last decade.  It is also just a great company. I bought it in 2001 and keeping an eye on it has given me useful insights into business in Brazil and international trade in commodities.  So sad that I have to get rid of it this year, since it is a big firm in Brazil and it could create the appearance of impropriety when I am down there working for the USG.    

On the other end, I have a firm called Dyadic. They make enzymes potentially used to create inexpensive cellulosic ethanol. That is how I got interested. Unfortunately, about a week after I bought it, somebody in a Chinese partner organization was found to have cooked the books. For a while it was dropped from the exchanges. When it came back, it was worth less than 10% of what I paid for it. Talk about bad timing.  I didn’t bother to sell it, mostly because it was not worth it. The broker commission would have accounted for a large percentage of the total proceeds.  Besides, I like to keep it around as a reminder against the sin of unwarranted pride.  Since then it has come back a little, but I don’t expect ever to break even on this investment. That is the one that made me understand that my confidence in investing had overtaken my competence. I had a reasonable understanding of the product and the markets, but the accounting thing is just beyond my ability.

When you add it all up, I probably have made as much money in the supermarket (buying things like spaghetti sauce on special) as I have in the stock market, but I have made a little and it was more interesting than just putting the money into the bank. I learned a few things along the way about how business works and I learned that the market is smarter than I am, hence the reliance on indexing. People who learn that lesson young are usually better off than those who learn it when they are older, or not at all.

I will write about how the NUCOR meeting goes tomorrow.

May 09, 2010

Appropriate Levels of Leadership

I make distinctions among the terms leadership, management and administration, but when I wrote to a respected colleague that government should lead but not manage, I couldn’t make explain it well enough to make the distinction clear to him. The distinctions are subtle and not universally accepted, but I think we have to make them and much unpleasantness results when we mixed them up.

Lots of books and seminar graduate seminars have addressed this question, so I am not going to say that mine is the final word or that the concept is settled. One of the many websites I found had a good and simple explanation that leaders lead people and managers manage tasks. Let me add that administrators administrate the rules. I think another good distinction is that leaders tell you why, mangers tell you how and administrators implement it.

Of course there is significant overlap, but there are also decided tendencies among people. My track record, which now goes back more than a quarter century, shows that I am a better leader than I am a manager and I am a downright poor administrator because I tend not to follow rules carefully enough. (Administration means following rules, while leadership often means changing them) I learned this the hard way, but I did learn. I few years back I turned down a position that would have led to promotion because the job consisted largely of administering rules. I told my incredulous bosses that if they put me in that job, sooner or later I would screw it up with some sort of unwarranted “innovation.” You have to know your limitations. It is simply not true that everybody can learn to do everything and it is important to know what you can do ... and what you can't.

If you look at successful leaders, you often find that you are really dealing with a team. You have a leader who makes broad plans and statements and has valuable insights. And then you have a good manger working nearby who makes these things work. A good leader should never hire a deputy who is like him/her. They need to have complementary skills and temperament. Harmony comes from the differences. There is often a crisis of leadership if the manger moves into the leadership position. Excellent mangers may ostensibly have the skills and qualifications to be excellent leaders but lack the temperament or the vision. On the other hand, leaders w/o good management skills or backup can drift aimlessly from one big, good but unimplemented idea to another. Deploying a great talent in the wrong time or place is the stuff or tragedies, all the more poignant when it brings down someone who has been wildly successful before.

Different situations call for different types of leadership, management or administration combinations. Leadership is usually most necessary when there is difficult to predict change. The cliché phrase used to be “paradigm shift.” Somebody needs to lead the way out of the old way or into the new one. In the case of significant discontinuous change, there is no reliable experiential road map to go by. Somebody needs to make a new path. This is very exciting and often very creative but also dangerous and destructive. Leadership must be flexible and arrangements are ad-hoc. Most of us do not like to live in such interesting times, although we do like to read about them, watch them on TV and imagine how we would have done better than those who actually called the shots.

If conditions are stable and predictable, leadership is less important. In fact, you can often get by with administrators and bureaucracies. The word bureaucracy is often used pejoratively, but bureaucracies can be phenomenally robust and efficient. Bureaucracy is based on rules and if the situation is well known, stable and predictable, you can make rules that actually work. The working of a computer is like a bureaucracy. It makes a series of if-then decisions and quickly comes up with reasonable results. But one reason it works so well in the cyber context is that computers don’t have personalities and they don’t get bored. People tend not to like bureaucracies because they limit or eliminate creativity. You simply are not allowed to deviate from form AB5055 or make up your own unique interpretation. If you do, it can have repercussions throughout the system.

Most organizations have mixtures of types, with some core functions administered in bureaucratic ways, some discretion among mangers and some leadership that responds to changes and takes risks. Success depends on deploying each appropriately.

So what about government and society?

I am not being facetious when I say that I love government and think that it is so precious that it should be used sparingly. Stable government is the prerequisite of civilization and a reasonably efficient and honest (or at least transparently corrupt) government, one that can and does protect property rights, is the prerequisite for a market economy. That is why true market economies did not develop until the around 300 years ago, along with the democratic revolutions, and why there are still some places they don’t work. But as with medicine, hearty food or fine whiskey, some is good but too much is unhealthy or even poisonous.

The old, "A man's gotta know his own limitations" saying goes for big organizations too.

Lots of people have tried to explain the failure of government planning or socialism by referencing its lack of congruence with human behavior (i.e. people are greedy; they like to keep what they earn etc). Those things are important, but I don’t think this is the big flaw. Until the democratic revolutions of a couple centuries ago, all societies were top down (the king, pope or emperor told you what to do and when to do it, even if poor communications allowed people to avoid them day-to-day) and all complex societies relied heavily on government rules. Most pre-modern governments tried to establish "fair" prices and many societies even enforced specific rules for how people of various classes and groups were allowed to dress. It is indeed the case that power tends to corrupt people who have it and that somebody always takes advantage of opportunities provided by big government, but EVEN IF everybody was honest, unselfish and smart, it still wouldn’t work.

The problem for planners has to do with change and information flows. You can manage risk, but uncertainty creates real challenges. Effective planning requires a reasonable ability to predict future developments.To do this, you need to have a fair idea of what is happening right now and the relationships among the parts of the system. Even with the help of super computers, it has been impossible for central planners to aggregate and understand even a day’s worth of economic or social data. We (humans) do not do complexity well. So if you want to system to work, you have do it with a division of labor and you have to allow significant autonomy of decision making to smaller and dispersed units and individual. These people have the information about their limited spheres. They also have the incentive to use it well. Their millions of decisions are aggregated through the market mechanism. This is a positive good thing anyway. It is called freedom, but let’s just stick to pragmatism for now. It works better than the alternatives in the long run.

Now how about a paradox? We often hear criticism that we don’t have a plan for how to deal with big things like global warming, natural disasters, economic change etc. When people say this, what they mean is that we don’t have a centralized government blessed plan. But that doesn’t mean we have no plan. Actually, what we have is a process of distributed decision making. I have a plan for those things that are important to me. I seek information about these things to improve my chances of being right. Everybody has a plan and the total planning is greater and better than if some really smart officials did one big plan for us all. Beyond that, the distributed decision making is more robust. It may never be 100% right, but it can quickly respond to changes. It doesn't work all the time; It just works better most of the time.

Having a process to make decision is more important than having a specific plan. The example I used to use was kayaking down a rapidly flowing river. I cannot tell you exactly what I will do when I come to a particular patch of white water or rocks because I am not sure of the conditions. But I am reasonably certain that I will know what to do because I have a process to make those sorts of decisions.

To sum up, as I have said on other occasion, government has a crucial role in providing the legal and often the physical infrastructure that allows people to plan for their own lives and prosper. In times of crisis, government may grow and take on role that the people would generally do by themselves. But when the crisis is over, it should again shrink down to its appropriate tasks and size. This is what happened after World War II, when the enormous U.S. war machine, which had of necessity regimented the country to fight totalitarian dictatorships, reverted to peaceful and usually private leadership, management and administration.

Those totalitarians had detailed plans. We have a decision making process in the interaction between smaller government, individuals and organizations knit together with the mechanism of aggregated choice. I like our system better. IMO, this is the more natural system. In a working ecology, various forces work themselves out in relation to each other w/o a plan, but with a process. You can see how it works in the picture above. Nobody planted any of those things, but they are sort of spaced out right anyway.

April 25, 2010

Bugging Out

Mob at Marine exerciseOur exercise is over. After a mob protested at the embassy and suicide bomber blew himself up, causing a mass casualty event. We evacuated the embassy. The role players did a really good job. The Marines responded well.  It was a good experience for all.

This was literally a "rent a mob". Contractors hired these guys to play angry locals. The same thing happens in real life, both in the U.S. and abroad. Whenever you see "spontaneous" demonstration, you are probably seeing a rent a mob at least in the core.  The professionals do a better job in front of the cameras anyway.

I learned or relearned some lessons about roles.  It is interesting how people play and become the roles assigned them, even if the assignments are mostly arbitrary.  Of course, we did have a artificial environment, but it reminded me that we have to be careful not to become our jobs, because you want to have something left with the playacting is over – in real life too.

Below is the tank wash.  As the amphibious vehicle come out of the salt water, they get washed down.

Tank wash 

Below is the Marine bar "Iron Mike's"  Iron Mike was one of the "real Marines" revered by all. 

Iron Mike 

Below is the obstacle course on the way to the ocean. I walked the course - and AROUND the obstacles - on my way back and forth to the beach cottage.  I did leap over a few of the logs until i skinned my knee. Not as tough as I used to be. 

Obstacle course 

March 16, 2010

Work-Life Balance

Balancing work and the rest of your life is never easy. An NPR story on results-only work environments reminded of that.  I once ran a unit with around forty-five professionals, most of whom telecommuted a couple days a week and since my current staff and I enjoy flexible work arrangements, I think I can add something to the debate.  

Telecommuting and flexible hours can work well and increase productivity and morale at the same time, always a plus, but whether or not you can have flexible hours or work at home first of all depends on what you do.  Of course, if you work in a factory or a construction site, if you are a farmer or a fireman, you have to go to a specific work site.  We are mainly talking about jobs connected using Internet. 

One of my challenges in managing ROWE (I will call it by NPR’s term, which is better and more inclusive) was perceived fairness.  Jobs where people can work by themselves or collaborate online are easy candidates for ROWE.  But some jobs require actual physical presence.  In most offices, those jobs tend to fall near the top and the bottom of the organizational chart.  Let’s start near the top.

A big part of management and leadership is just being there and being seen.  Another is making personal connections, sometimes through the simple serendipity of being there. The now classic business book, “In Search of Excellence,” talked about management by walking around.   All great leaders know this intuitively and most good managers want to do it. Leaders also know that if they are not seen, they may not be heard from again. But sometimes when you promote an excellent worker to a management position he/she thinks it is unfair to ask him/her give up the ROWE.  Actually, leaders are always living in a ROWE and their results generally are produced in person.

On the other end, you have people who must do actually physical work.  Most obvious are people who clean things or set things up.  In my case, I had people who had to physically assemble outreach packets etc.  They complained that they could not telecommute, mentioning the injustice of it all.  You can see the problem from their point of view.  They are often paid less than average and have difficult time juggling work and family responsibilities. But there is nothing you can do for them except encourage them to try to get one of the jobs that has ROWE.   I found, however, that some don’t want those jobs either, because of the added responsibility, which leads me to the next aspect – responsibly.

ROWE requires greater self discipline on the part of the worker.  There are some people who just cannot handle it and I had to suspend some privileges.  But perhaps the trickier problem comes from those who work TOO hard.  They never really clock off.  For a while, I used to check my blackberry before bed and send off a few messages.  I was often surprised to get immediate responses from people still working.  Maybe they were just doing what I was doing, but I suspect not, since my inquiries were unusually one line reminders, while the responses I got for them took real work.  I used to have to tell them to stop working to avoid burn out.  AND I had to stop sending messages after 7pm or before 7am and tell others to do the same.  If people think the boss is working, some of them will work too, no matter what you tell them. 

The irony is that you have to lead by lazy example.  I “work” around ten hours a day, but in the middle of that day, I usually find time to run or take a walk. I find that it actually increases my effectiveness and not only because it makes me feel better. So much of our work is now online collaboration. It makes sense to sent something out and then get lost so that others can do their parts in peace.  You often don’t add value by hanging around and can actually subtract some.

ROWE has some interesting social and organizational implications. I am not sure if it strengthens or weakens the power of the employee or the power of the organization. A bad boss can become a tyrant by demanding 24/7 responses. On the other hand, employees can more easily ignore him. I suppose a lot depends on the relative power of each going in. 

It will save companies some money. I thought of using “hotelling” where ROWE employees share office space on the assumption that everybody won’t be there at any one time. I didn’t get very far with this and had to back off.  But it will come. It doesn’t make sense to have a whole suite of empty offices. Future office buildings will feature more open and common space to handle the surges, but less daily personal space.

I believe in ROWE for myself and others.   

But not all mangers like ROWE.  Some personality types just like to have people around to boss. I have to admit that I sometimes feel a little lonely when I walk past empty offices, but it is the way more and more firms will be organized in future.

People will do things in a decentralized way.  In fact, we have already outsourced many of our routine tasks, such as most copying and compiling.  FedEx, UPS or the Post Office can now do most of your logistics. Cloud computing will take care of your data processing and there are firms that will handle all your HR functions.  Maybe we will all become firms of one or two people, teaming up with others on an ad-hoc basis and cooperating and connecting via communications technologies.

I remember more than twenty-five years ago I heard a motivational speaker say that everybody was in business for himself.   He explained that nobody takes care of you as well as you take care of yourself.  You had the responsibility to keep yourself current and trained by seeking education.  You had to make sure your skills were up to date and that you have access to everything you need.  You couldn’t count on your employer to do that, he said.  We were effectively our own company that sold our serviced to our employer(s).  I thought he meant it metaphorically, but he was right in very concrete ways.  We should all think of ourselves as a company that we own and manage and ask whether we would buy stock in ourselves and whether our work-life balance makes it the kind of place we want to live and work. 

If not, maybe a little R&D is in order.

BTW - the picture on top shows the first magnolias blooming near the Red Cross. 

March 15, 2010

We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Wagon train painting from Smithsonian Museum of American History

We cannot patent ideas. Patents can protect only the physical manifestations of ideas, not the ideas themselves. This makes sense from a practical legal point of view. But we think of technology too narrowly when we concentrate on equipment and machines that make our world so different from that of our parents. A technology also refers to the human skills, habits and even cultures that help us solve problems and achieve our goals. These broader aspects of technology often explain why physical technologies sometimes fail to transfer or fail to flower outside their places of origin.  When we sell somebody a computer, we just are not transferring the whole technology, even if we have included the latest software. 

Misunderstanding of the breadth of technologies is an important reason why we fail to understand other contemporary cultures or people of other ages.  We tend to think that they are just like us only wearing funny clothes or that they are so different as to be almost a different type of human. Both these formulations are wrong.  Human nature remains similar, but it is amplified, altered or attenuated by technologies available and used. 

Physical technologies are easy to see.  An ordinary person in a culture that has developed automobiles can move many times faster than the fastest runner of one that has not. Intellectual technologies are harder to see, but can convey similar advantages. For example, the greatest mathematician of 1000 years ago could not pass a high school math course. Many of the quantitative techniques we use were just not invented. There was no calculus back then.  Statistics were in the alchemy stage. Even those calculation tables were not around.  Would it be possible to think as clearly about physics or engineering if you just didn’t have those mathematical and calculation tools? 

If I can indulge a little with my own experience (since this is my blog post), I can explain a growth of technologies and how it affects skills. I graduated with my MBA in 1984.  I am certain that I could not have gotten an MBA at all in 1974 and I believe that by 1994 (or today) I would have an easier time in school.  The reason is the presence and removal of limiting factors.  I cannot do arithmetic.  Arithmetic is not the same as math, but until calculators became common nobody could handle higher math unless he was also passably good at the simple skill of “ciphering.”  In 1974 sophisticated calculators were not available or affordable. Ten years later they were. Calculators are good; computers are better. By 1994, computer programs were commonly available that easily could do regression comparisons and multivariate analysis.   

These improvements in technology removed the tedium and routine repetitive work and allowed us to use our brains in more innovative ways. We used to think of intelligence in terms of ability to remember a lot of facts and do quick calculations. (I call it the Spock trap.)  These are things that machines now do for us most of the time.  In humans we now treasure the kind of intelligence that can make intuitive and creative leaps. Technology removes a limiting factor and makes the next step possible.

There are less obvious advances. One of the most important is in the realm of organization.  The Framers of our constitution studied political systems ancient and (to them) modern, but they found no example of a successful large republic or one with consistently peaceful transitions of executive power over long periods. That is because there weren’t any. Humans had not yet created that experience.  Our Constitution is based on Greek and Roman models leavened by the practical experience of British practices supplemented by examples from elsewhere.  (A big failing of the Romans is that they never solved the chief executive succession problem. We were forewarned and did a good job with that.)

James Madison’s or Alexander Hamilton’s reading list was impressive, but all the experience of the 19th and 20th Centuries, when many new forms of governance were tested in real world situations was unavailable to them since it still was in the future. (A good book about the thinking that went into the U.S. Constitution is Novus Ordo Seclorum by Forest MacDonald) Imagine trying to explain political theory w/o being able to reference anything that happened after 1787 and you will begin to understand their handicap.

How about economics?  The guys who wrote the Constitution could have read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but all the economic theory and experience with markets on which we now depend were still in the future.  It is amazing how well Hamilton did w/o those things or examples. In my own lifetime, we have seen a revolution in our understanding of economics, with various intellectual technologies, such as behavior economics and new means of measurement.  It is now much easier to understand what and why people are acting in the economic realm.  

We all stand on the shoulders of giants of the past and it is no disrespect to them or foolish pride on our parts to acknowledge that our position gives us greater vision than they enjoyed.  I am always struck by the incongruous combination of sophistication and short-sightedness among the masters of the past.  Plato and Aristotle struggled with concepts that we can easily address because they and others have shown us the way.  It is churlish of us to look down on their mistakes but silly to ignore them.  No intelligent modern man could base his philosophy on Plato any more than a modern doctor could stop his study with Hippocrates or a physicist could understand the universe by studying Thales. But we owe much of our modern understanding to the starts they gave us.

So,  we can talk about physical, intellectual, scientific, cultural and organizational technologies. But I think there have also been improvements in moral technology. I know this is controversial and I am not saying that most people have become morality better; I am saying that ordinary people have access to a better “moral technology," which give even ordinary people access to moral power that only the most fortunate had in the past.  That is not to say they use the power wisely any more than a driver of a fast car necessarily puts all the horsepower to good use. 

As somebody who loves the classics, I treasure the ancient texts. I know that people will remind me that Aristotle addressed ethics, almost 2400 years ago and we have had access to the Bible for nearly 2000 years.  What has improved?   Most important, IMO, is that more people can think about these issues.  We have greater literacy and much greater access to the great books. We have also expanded our experience to include the wisdom of a greater variety of cultures. We also have the benefit of thousands of years of experience. We could claim that the clash of cultures in the Roman world was every bit as real as we face today, but never before has the contact been so rapid or intimate. In times before significantly before our own, news and people moved only as fast as a horse could walk or at best a ship could sail with a good wind. Most people lived their entire lives within a few miles of the places they were born. People simply did not have the diversity of experiences we do today.  

It is a lot easier to believe a set of morals is THE only truth if you never meet any good or intelligent person with a conflicting or contrary opinion. Moral or ethical awareness improves and develops when challenged to address new experiences, different ideas and diverse people. 

There is also the accumulated effect of experience. The knowledge of the Holocaust and a visit to Auschwitz will certainly affect a moral calculation. Some of the ends justifying the political means or "collective" will so completely overriding the priorities of individuals makes much less moral sense if you know about the Gulags.  

So we have to be realistic. We don’t expect that a man with a hammer and chisel can beat a steam drill (remember the John Henry story). Technology multiplies the power of human muscle. It also can multiply the power of human intelligence and improve human thinking and judgment. This is hard to believe. We like to think that the great thinkers of the past, or of other cultures w/o some of our technologies of thought, would be able to fit right into our intellectual context, but it is unlikely. Besides to obvious historical excitement, I think it an able modern scholar would be disappointed with a technical discussion with Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Pythagoras or Leonardo da Vinci. We have "conversed" with them already through their writings and have developed further their best ideas in light of knowledge and experience they could not have.

I have had this disappointing experience on a smaller and modern scale on several occasions when I have met authors whose work I admire.  Many times, their knowledge of their topic peaked on the day they finished the book I read and loved. It makes sense. They poured themselves into what they wrote and after that forgot some of the details, maybe they moved on to something else.  Of course, it is often very interesting to learn about their subsequent ideas, but that is another story.

Think of it this way. Most of us try to improve ourselves and learn new things. If you take a rigorous course of study, are you better before or after … or are you just the same? If you don’t feel you can improve, you would be foolish to spent the effort. And if you believe you are better after the learning (internalizing the new intellectual technology) you must also understand that someone w/o access to what you learned would be in the same situation you were before you became more enlightened.

March 02, 2010

Intellectual Property

I finished the first module of the distance learning course on intellectual property rights today and I thought I might put make a short write up of some of the take-aways. 

Intellectual property rights give the holders the exclusive rights through things like patents, trademarks, geographical indications, copyright, trade secrets and other undisclosed information.

The idea is to increase sharing of ideas and innovations, while protecting the rights of those who came up with them for specified amounts of time.  Without protections, most people either will not work very hard to come up with new things or they will try to keep their innovations a secret.   This is exactly what happened in times past and still happens in places where intellectual property protections are weak.   

The U.S. was an early leader in the specific protection of intellectual property.   It is written into the first article of our Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, and Clause 8) and it is one of the contributing factors to our nation’s rapid progress in the sciences and practical technologies.   Ben Franklin, a prolific inventor, was at the Constitutional Convention.    He invented (or perfected) bifocals, the lighting rod and the Franklin stove, among other things, but he refused to patent any of them, preferring to share them with all of mankind.  He had already made enough money by then and was devoting himself to public service.  However, he and others clearly saw that most inventors and innovators would not find themselves in Franklin’s happy condition or mindset.

The dual need to share and protect is reflected in patent law.   A patent give the holder the exclusive right to structures and methods that result from his idea, but only for a specific time and only on the condition that the inventor publicize the specifications.   Beyond that, the patent protects the physical manifestations, not the idea itself.

Copyright refers to the rights of authors and composers to control their work and it is under a lot of strain these days.    You have always been allowed “fair use”.  That means I can quote or take ideas from an author’s work if it is used as part of a new work and it not just copying the whole thing.   This worked well enough until it became easier to copy with Xerox and got even worse with the easy cut and paste or computers.  Now we have a whole new artistic/literary/musical genre of “mash-up.”  It is hard to tell where one work leaves off and another starts.  Beyond that, some artists don’t like their work to be altered.   The details of this are beyond my expertise (and frankly generally beyond my interest) but it makes a difference to some people.   Some countries give authors & artists the rights to control their work long after it has left their hands.   They often call these “moral rights.”  That was part of the controversy when Ted Turner wanted to colorize the classics.  I can see both sides in this case.  It is more fun to watch a movie in color and many of the kids will not even look at one in black and white.  But the techniques of color are different from those of black and white.   It may become a significantly different work when it is colorized.

Trademarks and trade secrets are a little different.  These things usually are not very profound, although they are the things most familiar to us.   You have the golden arches, Colonel Sanders’ face, or the unique way Coca-Cola is written.  They are meant only as a means to differentiate products.  The most famous trade secret is the formula for Coca-Cola.    As much as l like the stuff, the world would not end if it was disclosed, but it would make it a lot harder to know I was getting something I liked to drink or some knockoff.   A trade secret can be held indefinitely. 

I have a little more trouble with geographical indications. The Europeans tend to be much more interested in those things than we are, maybe because they have a lot more geographical distinctions. Many of the foods that we call by ordinary names are actually geographical indications. Champagne or Bordeaux come from a specific place in France. Products from other places should not be called by those names. The same goes for Bologna, Prosciutto, Colby, Munster, Parmesan, or Romano cheese. Lots of things have names that indicate their original region.  Many have become generic and we hardly think of them anymore. But others have retained the geographical protection. That is why you might find something Parmesan or Champagne modified by style. 

A more recently important and even more confusing piece of “intellectual property” is folklore or customs. So far nobody has been able to properly define this, since folklore and customs tend to cross national and regional borders and it is probably impossible to identify the original sources.   I suppose the Greeks could try to get a cut each time someone mentions a Homeric Hero (e.g. Ajax cleanser) or even Homer Simpson. Of course, the original Homer probably lived in what is now Turkey.  Go back more than a couple generations and it all becomes the common heritage of mankind and that is why I don’t think much good will come of this aspect of intellectual property.

I have five more modules on this particular course.  I suppose they will get harder.

February 07, 2010

Overtaken by Events

We rarely solve big problems; we just go beyond them, usually by redefining our goals and priorities and often by employing knowledge and technologies that were unavailable when the problem was initially defined.  In other words, our vision of solutions for the future is often limited because those solutions have not been invented yet. We have a phase “overtaken by events” (OBE’D). It refers to facts, ideas or plans that are invalidated by subsequent events.  Most problems are not really solved; they are just OBE’D. 

Stuff happens sometimes for no reason we can understand

The future is uncertain by definition, but we have learned to manage risk.  Our increasing ability to identify and manage risk is one of the too often overlooked foundations of our complex modern civilization but we never eliminate it and there are many situations where there is so much uncertainty that we cannot even properly assess the risk, i.e. figure out the odds.  (I read a couple good books on this.  I recommend “the Black Swan” & “Against the Gods.”) This is what drives people crazy.   It seems counterintuitive to some, who seem to think that if we could solve our big problems if just worked hard enough and planned well enough.   We things go badly wrong, they look to blame someone.   Well, sometimes we just have uncertainty.  Shit happens in ways nobody could have reasonably predicted and sometimes in ways nobody could have predicted at all.

Not all of this is bad, however.  In fact it is mostly good.  There are upside and downside surprises but in the long run the upside surprises are more important.   Why?  Even if the ups and downs are distributed randomly, we can apply human intelligence to adapt to them.   Within broad parameters, the quality of our lives depends less on the good or bad luck we experience than on the responses we make to what comes along. We have to use an iterative approach that learns from experience and changes responses to changing circumstances.

Einstein was right when he said that we cannot solve problems with the same kind of  thinking that we used when we created them. 

O Fortuna velut Luna

The best system is not one that plans in detail for all the challenges but rather one that is robust enough to adapt to changing conditions and exploit opportunities, one that embraces the statistical nature of the future and takes advantage of it. We need more of a planning process than a precise plan.  We cannot anticipate all the events but we can have processes in place that can recover from setback to adapt to changes. I think of it like a tool box and portfolio.   In an uncertain world, you have to diversity and empower those closest to evolving events. This is how markets work, BTW.

This is a harder sell than the dishonest or self-deceptive statement that you have anticipated and planned for all the eventualities.  Most people crave certainty and they love those who claim to have it, even when they know or should know it is bogus comfort.   We make systematic errors in the direction of imposing patterns of certainty where none exist.  That is why we think clouds look like Snoopy or Albert Einstein.  There is even a five dollar word for it “apophenia”.

Anyway the simple advice is to find or create adaptive robust systems that can survive downside shocks and move quickly to exploit upside opportunities, all the time understanding that the Lady Fortune’s Wheel  never stops turning.  (BTW I am thinking of this in terms of Boethius, not Pat Sajack and Vanna White) It can pull you up and down and some big things can come up pretty fast.

Now you’re cooking with gas

Natural gas productionOne upside surprise that is a real game-changer is the recent technological advance that allows us to get natural gas from shale deposits. In the last couple of years, we have made available natural gas deposits with more than the energy potential of all the oil in Arabia. A solution that was unavailable and largely unforeseen five years ago will change all our lives … soon.  I wrote about this a couple of months ago as I drove through the Pennsylvanian coal – and now natural gas – country.

Natural gas is the perfect partner for wind energy, since gas plants can be turned on and off relatively easily.   Wind is very good when it is blowing but it can cut off quickly.   In other words, it is unreliable w/o backup.  Nature gas is the backup.  

Natural gas can help us squeeze oil out of our transportation network. According to the linked article, “the chief obstacle to developing a natural gas infrastructure capable of supplying service stations and highway rest stops is regulatory. If that is removed—and here we do need government action—we could expect to see trucks, buses, and cars running on natural gas in a relatively short period of time. The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be considerable.”

This new energy future will not only help us free ourselves from the despots who control most of the world’s oil reserves (it seems like kind of a divine joke that most of the world’s easy to get oil is under such regimes) but it will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions w/o the draconian measures contemplated just a short time ago. Natural gas is cleaner than oil and much cleaner than coal in terms of pollution and in terms of CO2.

So a problem that was intractable with the conditions and technology of 2005 could be party solved in ways that nobody really anticipated. But we have to use our intelligence to make an upside surprise into good fortune … before it is OBE’D or Fortune's wheel takes another turn. 

Bright American Future 

The big Washington blizzard didn’t make AEI cancel the session on new American demographics and the discussion of “The Next 100 Million: America in 2050” with the author Joel Kotkin and a panel of experts chaired by Michael Barone.

Decline overdone

Experts have been saying that America is in decline since - even before - we became an independent nation. Kotkin acknowledges that someday these critics will be correct, but not today, and he paints an optimistic picture of our American future. America has a lot of advantages going into the next generation. It starts with demographics.

Americans still remember how to have kids; it is evidently no longer a universal skill

The U.S. is unique among developed country since we have a positive rate of natural increase. It is not very much above replacement level, but that is more than others, some of which are almost in free fall. America is also an anomaly in that in some of our suburbs wealthy, well-educated women sometimes have three or more kids. (I recall reading an article about the big families in affluent Loudon County next door to us.)  

We also still get millions of immigrants. That means that the America is growing older slower than other developed countries and the American labor force will continue to grow through 2050, while others suffer greater or lesser proportional decline in their productive populations relative to their dependent ones. The interesting thing about his data was that it also shows that the world's most populous country - China - will begin to suffer labor shortages (at least for skilled labor) very soon.  The Chinese labor force will start to decline as early as 2015 (yes, five years from now) as a result of their perhaps necessary but draconian one-child policy. (Long term predictions are always tough, but by 2050 the U.S. labor force is projected to rise by 42%; China’s will drop by 10% and Japan’s labor force will decline by an astonishing 44%).

More old people, fewer young workers 

This labor force decline will be accompanied by a big growth in the elderly dependent population, both in relative and absolute terms. The world has never experienced anything like this before and our lack of models will require adaptions we cannot fully anticipate. We are truly going where no human societies have gone before.

But America will suffer these declines later and less severely than most others. In addition, the U.S. has a very robust & adaptive economic system. National power is based on economic strength, innovation and demographic clout. Among the great nations of the last generation, only the U.S. will still have these elements in abundance in the next generation.

Managing genteel decline not the same as planning robust growth

This U.S. outlook contributes to disagreements with old allies. For example, the Europeans can also make demographic projections. They see that their populations will decline and their economies will grow much slower than ours. When your population will get smaller and your economy won’t grow much, you don’t worry very much about promising cuts in CO2. You need different policies if you are managing a genteel decline than when you are planning for robust growth.

The U.S. will change internally too. The growth of the last fifty years went mostly to the coasts.   The next fifty years will see a return to the heartland. Kotkin doesn’t say that all the little praire towns will be back, but space and affordable housing will draw people away from the coasts. He says that the whole idea of suburbs has become meaningless. There is more a blending of suburbs, cities and rural areas. Kotkin foresees what he calls an archipelago of villages. More people would be connected by new media in greener and less crowded communities. It sounds a lot like the Loudoun County communities mentioned in the article I linked above.

Today's ethnic & racial categories will not mean much in 2050

Much has been said about the changing ethnic composition of the U.S. population and in 2050 the white native born population is  projected to drop to around 50% of the labor force.  But how significant will this be? Kotkin pointed out how foreign the large immigration of Irish seemed in the 19th Century.  We just forget how different earlier waves of immigrants had been and how completely they have been integrated into our society. When my grandfather and his brother Felix came to the U.S., they spoke no English and probably had never seen an American before. There is probably no population on earth today that is so "foreign." 

The younger generation doesn't really care very much about race, with vast majorities in favor of interracial marriage, so by 2050 today's categories will be as meaningless as some of the national and religious distinctions made in our grandparents' childhoods. In other words, by 2050 nobody will care. 

Still some challenges and skills mismatched

The road to this bright happy future is not necessarily certain. We have a challenge of education, not so much college but technical. We might, in fact, be pushing too many kids into college when the more appropriate skills might be technical. Our community and technical colleges should be given a bigger role as providers of final or working degrees rather than way-stations to four-year colleges. Kotkin thinks it is just a problem of incentives. We reward careers in finance and law more than we do those who actually make useful things. If that changes, so will our career paths.

We have been able to import skilled labor, but that might be slowing. We have some competition now.  Places like Canada & Australia are also pleasant and welcoming like the U.S. They are also "countries of aspiration" and they drawing in some of the skilled immigrants.  There are also now more opportunities in many source countries, as people around the world reap the benefits of market liberalization reforms of past decades. Indian engineers, for example, now may have good opportunities at home.

The general pool of attractive potential immigrants is also shrinking, as birth rates drop even in those place that traditionally had very high rates of growth, such at Mexico and parts of Asia. A good example of what this pattern can look like comes from South Korea, which a couple decades ago sent millions of immigrants to the U.S. and now absorbs its own population growth, which is now much lower than that of the U.S. 

We need more Engineers & plumbers and fewer leaf blowers & Lawyers

We Americans screw ourselves, however. Canada or Australia favor the skills their countries need.  An immigrant with skills has a better chance of getting into those places. Our immigration policies give too little weight to the skills and education we can use in our economy. We are too "fair". We don’t need to import any more unskilled labor or even worse - people who don’t plan to labor at all.  We have the right to ask potential immigrants what they will contribute to our country. Besides the relatively small numbers of bona-fides refugees, we have no moral duty to admit anybody. As long as we will limit total numbers and we have a choice, we should choose the best and the brightest, not people we need to train before they can operate a leaf blower.

Unfortunately, unskilled labor can create its own demand.  My personal complaint is against leaf blowing. That is usually a job that just need not be done at all and if unskilled labor wasn’t so cheap maybe we wouldn’t do it very often. You can learn to use a leaf blower in about thirty seconds.  We don’t need more of those things. We are better off with people with useful skills. Some jobs - such as leaf blowing - are worth less than zero. I have discussed the value of doing nothing (with specific reference to leaf blowing) here & here.

Anyway, the AEI event gave me something to think about.  I will have to buy the book and read the details. I have to say – once again – that we are really lucky to have these kinds of events offered free or cheaply to anybody with the inclination to listen. 

February 05, 2010

Telecommuting and Snow Days

Snow in Provedence Park HOA

I gave my staff the option to telework today, anticipating the dreadful white monster said to be slouching toward us and expected to blanket Washington with 16-24 inches of wet snow by tomorrow morning. (The record snowfall in Washington is 28 inches, set in 1922.  If you want to follow the storm's progress the hashtag is #snowpocalypse.) I did that yesterday morning. Soon after, we got a notice telling us that telecommuting should be encouraged.  Good.  Now we got a further notice telling us that the government employees will get four hours early dismissal and this goes for teleworkers too. Not good. I know this is done in the spirit of fairness and of course we will comply with the directive.  I know that I will sound like a scrooge, but it really doesn’t make sense.

Presumably we are giving people four hours off so that they can flee the confines of Washington before they are frozen in place by the fierce winter storm. This is smart, especially around here where we are dependent on transportation systems that seem especially sensitive to weather.  But our telecommuting decision has already addressed that problem for those working from home.  They are already safely hunkered down in their warm cocoons and don’t need those four hours to come safely home.  If it were up to me, I would just let them work the full day.

I have long been a supporter of telecommuting and encourage it to the greatest extent possible. I fought to protect and extend telecommuting when I ran the IIP-Speaker office and have written in support. It is good for morale, the environment and productivity where appropriately employed. But telecommuting is one of those things precariously balanced on a slippery steep slope and it starts the downward slide to perdition when it transitions from being a mutually beneficial working arrangement to a type of defined right for an employee.

Social pressures weaken when employees are away from their bosses and colleagues. Working alone requires a lot more self-discipline than working where everybody can see you. There is significant temptation to use telecommuting as a type of semi-vacation day. That is why telecommuting is not for everybody and why it can never become a right.  A few people will abuse it and – sorry for the cliché – ruin it for everybody. Managers have to maintain an arbitrary power over telecommuting, i.e. we have to have the authority to call telecommuters at a moment’s notice and change or assign different work.  It is also important to specify that if telecommuters cannot do the work from home, they must make other arrangements.  In other words, you cannot claim equipment failure as an excuse. The telecommuter has MORE responsibility at home than he/she has at work.  Responsibility is a price of the freedom and flexibility of telework. 

I have a simple kind of karma rule for life. If things are not too big a difference, I call them equal.  My analogy is the vending machine. If I put my money in and the machine rips me off, I don’t complain.  On the other hand, if it gives me too much change, I don’t try to give it back.   It is just too much effort to care very much and if you care only in one direction, you are being dishonest.

Work and trust are similar two-way propositions. I don’t complain when co-workers take a little extra time at lunch and don’t expect complaints when people have to stay a little longer to finish work.  As a worker, I am actually in favor of leaving a little more on the table, i.e. I try to put a little more effort in than I think I “need” to. Since I assume that I overestimate my contribution (as we all do) this probably makes it objectively about fair. Most people are okay with that, but there are always a few bad apples who try to take as much as they can and give back little or nothing.

I learned these things from hard experience, BTW.  I will give one example. A few years ago, I couldn’t get in touch with one of my telecommuters for a couple of days. When I finally found him, he told me that his phone and computer had gone down and thought that was a good excuse.   When I asked him what he had done during those two days, he just repeated that he had been unable to work.   I think he was lying about the phone and computer, but that didn’t matter as much as the demonstratable result that he didn’t work for two days.  I made him take those two days as annual leave and took away his telecommuting privileges until he come guarantee that his equipment would work. 

There was much gnashing of teeth and some people thought that I was unfair and arbitrary. I would say it was indeed arbitrary, but it was very fair. I further believe that if managers ever lose the power to be arbitrary in this manner, that telecommuting is doomed to become something like those jobs in the old Chicago political machine, where people showed up for their city jobs only to collect their paychecks.

Returning to my original thought, there is no reason to give telecommuters four hours off. This would be an excellent opportunity to demonstrate why telecommuting is such a good thing. As I wrote in the original linked posting  telecommuting makes our organization more robust and less susceptible to the caprices of nature. We should revel in that, savor the success, not throw it away in a misguided show of magnanimity. It violates the social contract and just doesn’t make sense.   

November 24, 2009

The Bureaucracy Has No Memory

Dreary day in Washington on Nov24 

A significant part of my pay could be “performance pay” now that I am in the Senior Foreign Service (Senior Executive Service) and don’t get automatic increases.  I didn’t get to compete for performance pay for 2007/8 because of a technicality – Congress acted too late on my class’ promotion and we were not in grade long enough to qualify according to the State Department’s arcane rules.   (Ironically, however, they acted quick enough that I lost my overtime pay in Iraq and ended up taking a pay cut because of my promotion. It won’t be until the middle of next year that I make up the money I lost by being promoted.) This year I just didn’t get performance pay.  I am a little surprised.  

This was the last performance report that included Iraq.  Next year my Iraq experience will be buried under the relative obscurity of this Washington assignment.  If I didn’t deserve performance pay for Iraq, I certainly should not get it for Washington, so my prospects don’t look good. Iraq was about the best I can do.  I am beginning to feel unpopular.

In fairness, my colleagues are doing lots of important things in Embassies overseas and in Washington.  I don’t doubt the merit of those on the list. 

But being a PRT leader in Iraq seemed a bigger deal to the Department when they asked me to take the assignment. They dragged me out of the job I had and made me feel that delay of even a couple of days was disastrous.  It sure seemed important. Of course, the perceived value of a service declines rapidly after that service has been performed and there has, anyway, been a shift in priorities.   You get little advantage being tied to yesterday’s urgency, no matter how important they told you it was at the time.  

I said when I signed on for Iraq that I did NOT do it for career advancement and I was telling the truth.  I remain glad that I volunteered.  I derived immense satisfaction from doing the job there. I worked with great colleagues and I am convinced that there are people alive in Iraq today who would not be had we not done the work we did.   I would not change my decision.

Nevertheless, it bothers me a little to conclude that I would likely have been in a better career position, at least in terms of contacts & assignment prospects, had I not volunteered, had I kept and built on the good job I had in September 2007. Things moved along w/o me while I was literally wandering in the desert.  It is my own fault too. I did a poor job of reconnecting.   I thought I could just pick up where I left off; I was mistaken. 

Chrissy says that I don't get mad enough about these sorts of things and that I need to develop a stronger sense of entitlement. Sometimes the people who make the most noise get the most recognition. I tend to downplay hardships and achievements and I am not prone to anger. I am mad about not being recognized for my Iraq service, but this is about the extent of my rage.

"Do it because it is the right thing to do, but remember that the State Department talks a lot about the importance of the mission and the people who do it, but the bureaucracy has no memory."  That is what I will tell the people who ask my advice on taking on hard assignments.

It is a dreary, depressing day, both in terms of the weather (as you can see from the picture above) and my outlook, but the sky will brighten up and so will my situation.    I plan to wallow in self-pity for a little longer; then I will stop and try to do something useful again.  

November 17, 2009

Trench Warfare & Ending a Great Hatred

Alex and I visited the battlefields associated with the Petersburg Campaign and Robert E. Lee’s final retreat.   Petersburg gave the world a taste of what trench warfare would be like.  You go from Federal earthworks to Confederate earthworks.   As in the World War I, the armies were racing around the flanks.  It soon became a grim slog, a war of attrition.  The South could not win this kind of war. They just didn't have enough men or materiel. 

Alex at earthworks in Petersburg 

Above is Alex in front of some of the earthworks.  Below is a reconstruction. 

Fortification reconstruction at Petersburg 

Lee was trying to escape to the west, where he could hook up with General Joe Johnston, while Union forces tried to bottle them up.   Lincoln’s fear was that the war would go on and maybe turn into a guerrilla war.  The Petersburg campaign has that endless war feeling anyway.  They were regularly taking thousands of casualties each DAY.  The soldiers were becoming more accustomed to war and much more cynical. They came to understand that the war in Virginia was ending and nobody wanted to be the last man killed.  There is a good novel about this period called "Last Full Measure" that captures some of the feeling.

Soliders' house at Petersburg 

Above is a soldiers' house.  It looks like a playhouse, but it held four men.   Below is what is left of the crater. Union miners from Pennsylvania made a tunnel under the Rebel positions and blew up Confederate fortifications.  Unfortunately, the attack didn't go well.  Union troops poured into the crater and many were trapped there. It looks bigger in real life.  You also need to remember that there has been almost 150 years of erosion and filling in.

Crater at Petersburg VA 

America’s Civil War was remarkable in its ending.   In France, terror followed revolution.  The Russians and Chinese murdered millions of people in similar situations.  In fact, protracted Civil Wars almost NEVER end without significant retribution and bloodletting.   I think that I can safely say that the ending of the American Civil War was unique in human history.   The victors were generous and the vanquished honorable.  Because it happened as it did, we think of it as inevitable, but the decisions made in April 1865 were not foreordained.

Sailor Creek battlefield 

Grant allowed Lee’s soldiers to keep their side arms and their horses.  Robert E. Lee instructed his men to go home and become good citizens.  Most did.   

Fighting at Petersburg 

I know that some scholars talk about the “myth” of reconciliation and point to the problems that persisted. Some people still hold a grudge for Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas. You have to ask the “compared to what?” question.  In most countries, more people die violently AFTER the wars.  Not in America.  Rebel leaders are usually executed.  The lucky ones are only imprisoned or exiled.  Not here. Can you imagine Cuba exiled welcomes back by the regime?  Russian exiles lured back were usually murdered.  

The Civil War was the worst war in American history.  The destruction was horrendous.  Yet after it ended … it ended.  April 1865 was probably the most remarkable month in world history.  This just doesn’t happen very often – or at all.   I think we should take time to think about this.  If others had learned from the Federal-Confederate example, we might have avoided most of the carnage of the 20th Century.   

Five Forks battlefield 

Above is a battlefield at Five Forks.  When the fight turned into a battle of attrition, most of the engagements were small, but this was a key turning point. Phil Sheridan defeated troops under the unlucky George Pickett, who was off having a fish dinner and didn't return until it was too late. The collapse of the Confederate position at Five Forks led directly to Lee's decision to abandon Richmond & Petersburg.  It was the beginning of the end for the Army of Northern Virginia and for the Southern Confederacy, and so Five Forks is sometimes called the Confederate Waterloo.  There is nothing much to see here today.  The trees and fields have grown back.  It is hard to believe that war was ever close to this peaceful, bucolic place.

October 26, 2009

Unlearned Lessons

Kayaks in Lake Michigan 

I participated in a seminar led by guy who had been on a CORDS team in Vietnam. CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) were supposed to do some of the development and coordination activities done by PRTs.  I was aware of CORDS but through talking to some older guys who knew about them. You cannot find much about them otherwise. It is the forgotten war and maybe the forgotten victory.

The professor pointed out that the insurgency in South Vietnam was decisively defeated after the TET offensive and CORDS cemented the victory.   After that, it became a problem of invasion from North Vietnam.  The popularly held idea that a bunch of insurgents, living with the people in the countryside, overthrew the South Vietnamese regime is just wrong.  We all remember the fall of Saigon, but we often forget that it was conquered by the armies of the North; big armies complete with armor and air support.  It wasn’t little guys in black pajamas.     

The successful counterinsurgency, including CORDS operation, was linked with the disastrous fall of Saigon and because we got the history wrong, usually w/o even thinking much about it, we were unable or unwilling to learn the lessons.  

The strategy associated with the surge worked in Iraq. We went from near defeat in late 2006 to a clear success (call it victory) a year later. I personally saw the change and felt its effects.  It was literally a matter of people dying or not. You can do all the academic analysis you want and round the words until they fit into square holes, but I am morally convinced that thousands of people are alive today because of what we did. PRTs were part of the surge and people like me contributed to the victory in Iraq. 

Our work at the PRTs may be following CORDS down the memory hole. It just doesn’t have many powerful champions and there are detractors. Some people are almost embarrassed that the surge worked, since they had so vociferously predicted its failure. Others have convinced themselves that success would have happened anyway.  Still others deny that we were successful at all since the situation is not a perfect as they could imagine. And then there are those who imply that victory or defeat in Iraq were/are just irrelevant.    

Some of the participants in the seminar asked me how State Department had taken advantage of the unique experience I had gained in Western Anbar. How had we absorbed that knowledge as a learning organization.  This is what they wanted to know.  I thought about it. I thought about it again.   The Marines invited me to Quantico to discuss my experience, several times, I told them. An independent scholar contacted me.  He had read my blog and wanted to see if I could tell him anything else.  At State Department … well, FSI asked me to present to classes of PRT folks going to Iraq.  I was on a panel with four other people and collectively we talked for about an hour.  That was good.  I sponsored my own brown bag lunch to discuss Iraq.   Five people came, all of them my friends just trying to be nice. I wrote a few entries on our State Department wiki, Diplopedia.  I don’t know if anybody read any of them, but information gets stale anyway unless it is converted to knowledge.

The follow up question was something like, “then how do you all learn?”  I mumbled about “reading in” to the cable and reports.

It is hard to be a learning organization because it is hard to turn experience into information and even harder to turn information into useful knowledge. We too often content ourselves with information on paper, or these days on computers.  We can gather all the numbers, metrics, whatever you want to call it, but it has to be converted to useful knowledge and categorized by human intelligence.  Creating useful knowledge usually means putting it into understandable context.  It usually also requires that the person digesting the information is also someone who can make decisions.  You cannot outsource your brains.

As a PRT leader, I had first-hand, primary knowledge. I sometimes didn’t know the significance of my information or how it fit into a bigger picture. It was helpful when someone had the secondary knowledge to evaluate and figure out what my information was part of. That is why a learning organization is stronger and smarter than the individuals in it.  If the information contained in individual minds remains un-harvested, the organization doesn’t learn.  It can be full of smart people who are adept at learning and improvising solutions, but it will lack the synergy of a learning organization. This is our problem.

I have been observing organizations for a long time.  You have to look at the organization as a whole with its own behaviors, not only at the separate individuals because groups are more than a the sum of individuals.  They develop a culture. We all know that individuals can learn, but so can organizations under the right conditions.

I see that many can be episodically learning organizations.  Much depends on characteristics of individuals in charge and the culture they engender. People have to talk and exchange information informally and non-judgmentally. The learning episode stops if anybody gets in trouble for being wrong, stepping out of line or presenting information that contradicts a agreed upon course of action.  But it is clearly a lot harder than just letting people talk and engage.  There has to be a way to evaluate information. Someone might be 100% honest and open, but still lack the perspective to create accurate or useful knowledge.  On the other hand, the old saying applies that even a broken clock is right twice a day, so you have to listen to everybody. 

The Marines in Iraq had become a learning organization.  I wrote about it at this link. Parts of State Department have been learning organizations during some periods.  I have been involved in some. It was exciting but those flashes of lights tend to flicker out when personnel or priorities shift. 

Maybe both personnel and priorities have shifted concerning PRTs in Iraq.  Maybe its just me.  Maybe the State Department has moved along.  Maybe the old Arab proverb applies, "The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on. I don’t suppose my banana index translates very well anyway. It even stopped working in Iraq before I left

October 21, 2009

Yesterday's Solutions are Today's Problems

Water on the ground near Gettysburg PA 

We are starting to notice the remarkable, game changing development in energy. Scientists have discovered a new way to get natural gas out of shale. They call it hydraulic-fracturing. And there is a lot of potential. This new technique has increased American gas reserves by something like 39% in the last couple of years.   Experts estimate that we have as much usable gas in the U.S. as the Saudis have oil and if only half of our coal powered plants converted to cleaner burning natural gas we could easily reach our greenhouse gas reduction goals. 

Gas is cleaner than oil and much cleaner than coal, both in terms of actual pollution and in terms of greenhouse gases such as CO2.  Another important consideration is that WE have our own vast new supplies of gas.  Most exportable oil is under corrupt, unfriendly or unstable countries.  It is better not to send American money to some of these guys.  Our gas, on the other hand, is in peaceful, pleasant American places like Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and West Virginia.  Many of these rural areas could use the jobs that domestic natural gas could bring.

I traveled though much of the area where the gas is when I drove from Syracuse to Virginia.  It is the same area where we did a lot of coal mining.  This is no coincidence.  The same forces that turned Paleozoic plants into coal also made gas.  The gas is trapped in shale formations and you can easily see how the roads were cut through the shale formations. 

Chesapeake Bay watershedBut I noticed something else about the geography of natural gas. It is also the geography of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and much of the water that isn’t running off into the Chesapeake flows into the Great Lakes. We worry about these bodies of water. While listening to local radio driving near Wilkes-Barre, PA I heard reports of firms extracting gas were asking permission to discharge water into the local streams. The HYDRO part of hydraulic-fracturing has to go somewhere.  I don’t know the details of the process, nor do I know about the quality of the water discharge, but I do know that any discharge in large enough amounts is going to create disruptions in the local ecosystem, in this case the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Some people are already raising concerns.  The process may turn out to be benign.  It could even be beneficial if the water is clean, but we will have to think of this as a balancing among priorities. 

Yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems and it follows that today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems.   Abundant American natural gas will help free us from nasty foreign oil suppliers and help us reach climate change goals, no doubt at the cost of something in the future.  This is not necessarily a failure of wisdom or judgment.   It is an ordinary consequence of making choices, setting priorities and doing these things in the context of imperfect information.   All these things are part of the definition of decision making.

Shale gas

Future critics with access to much more information as well as the experience of the past can easily attack earlier choices, but the comparison is usually unfair, as it is always unfair to compare hypothetical solutions with a real ones.  

For now the smart move looks like going for the gas. 


October 15, 2009

Early Snow and Trusted Captialists

Early snow in Pennsylvania on Oct 15, 2009 

It wasn’t the pleasant drive I envisioned.   It rained all the way up past Hersey PA.  Then it began to snow – snow in mid-October.  Where is this global warming stuff when you need it.   (Of course, I best be careful even joking about this subject.  The BBC is under vitriolic attack for pointing out that the globe has not gotten any warmer since 1998.  For the record, I have believed global warming is happening since around 1982.  I think I even pre-date Al Gore.   I believe some of it is influenced by humans and some of it is natural.   It probably can be managed through a combination of mitigation and adaption.  But I think the whole debate has become way too political and ideologically driven, so much so that I think truth takes a second place to politics, and when I hear that activists are trying squash information, I get annoyed.) 

Hershey plant in Hershey PA 

Anyway, it cleared up a little by the time I got to New York.  It is pretty up here.  The leaves are in mid-turn.  They will peak soon.  If the predicted rain and snow doesn’t come, maybe I can enjoy them.

Chocolate Avenue in Hershey PA 

On the way up I stopped at Hersey PA.  You see above that even the streetlights are Hershey kisses on Chocolate Avenue.  Milton Hersey, who founded the chocolate company that bears his name, was a very kind and good man.  He used the profits from his firm to make life pleasant for people around him.  For example, he founded a school, supported hospitals and helped make Hersey PA a place where people want to live. I won’t write all the details.  Check out the article if you want to find out more.  Suffice to say that there are special places in heaven for people like Milton.  I bought and happily ate a Hersey bar in his honor today. Below is Hershey heaven (I guess). It is from a mural at "The Hershey Story" museum.

Hershey Heaven 

We took the kids up to Hershey about ten years ago to tour the plant.  I got new respect for Hershey after that.  There just are some firms that are better than others, usually showing the personality of a founder.   Marriott is also like that.  I always stay in Marriott when I can.   It just seems a generous, honest and family friendly company.   As long as I am endorsing good companies, I also admire Charles Schwab, Cabalas, USAA insurance & Samuel Adams beer.  I hesitate to add, because people will give me some crap about it, but I also like United Airlines.  They always treated me fairly, even if travel in general sucks.   I don’t know if being good adds to their bottom line.  I am a loyal customer of Charles Schwab, USAA, Cabalas and Marriott and I advise others to use their services, but they also happen to make things I like to use.  I don’t really like Sam Adams beer, so that doesn’t do them much practical good if I admire the company.  I have indeed specifically bought Hershey bars BECAUSE of the Milton Hershey legacy, but that doesn’t add up to much. 

Products of Central New YorkEverything else being equal, I will buy something made in America and I give specific preference to products from Wisconsin or Virginia, but everything else rarely is equal.  I also understand that in this integrated world, the place of origin is hard to determine, but I never said it was logical.

On the left are products of Central New York, BTW. 

On the other hand, I won’t buy gas at CITGO – even if it is cheaper - because of Hugo Chavez.   I feel a little conflicted because I don’t want to hurt to good American station owners, but I cannot support that guy. Besides the other rotten things, he banned Coke Zero in Venezuela.  I refuse to go to any movie made by Michael Moore or Oliver Stone and I stopped enjoying Two and a Half Men after Charlie Sheen went nuts with the 9/11 conspiracy theories, but I think these are the only non-economic, non-taste factors that influence my purchasing decisions.  I suppose there are lots of unconscious associations.

Of course, we should make most of our product decisions based on the product itself.  It gets way to complicated to try to figure all the permutations of good and bad.  Few people are good enough in their own lives to judge the actions of firms.  Besides, in the real world "Corporate Responsibility" usually just means an opportunity for some activists to shake down a firm and firms often pay protection money to politically correct groups in the name of corporate responsibility.

Rest stop in Pribles NY 

Above is from a rest stop along I-81 a few miles outside Syracuse.  

"Corporate diplomacy can make a lasting impression.  I went to a Jim Beam tasting event six or seven years ago.  They told us about the lore of Bourbon, how it was invented in Kentucky, is aged in charred oak etc.  I didn't know that Bourbon cannot be aged more than around seven years, or it gets to be too strong.  Scotch keeps getting better for 18 years, but Bourbon ages faster in the warmer Kentucky climate.  BTW - Scotch older than 18 or Bourbon older than 7-8 is just a waste of money.  It gets older and more alcoholic; it just doesn't get any better.  After the "tasting," they offered various Bourbons for sale. I bought several bottles of more expensive whiskey than I would have purchased pre-tasting.  It doesn't take very much tasting to influence your judgment.  But I still feel more favorably disposed toward Jim Beam because of their outreach and I now believe I can tell the difference between black and white label, and between "Booker," "Baker," "Knob Creek," &  Basil Hayden. Notice, I say "I believe".  It helps if I can see the bottle first.

The guy at the tasting admitted that most people really cannot tell the difference all the time.  You would probably become a drunk before developing the true skill. Much indeed is in the presentation, but that makes sense. Most of the price you pay at a fine restaurant is in the surroundings and service and drinking the best whiskey from a dixie cup just doesn't cut it. 

The Few, the Proud Get More Numerous


RCT2 Marine TOA

All the armed services have exceeded their recruitment goals and they are recruiting higher quality than ever. The Marines managed to reach their EXPANDED goals years early.  The “Washington Post” article reporting this still suffers some of the old-fashioned thinking that people are somehow driven by dire circumstance into joining up.   In fact most recruits come from middle class or upper middle class backgrounds. The military no longer gets most, or even many, of its recruits from among the poor and uneducated.  Unfortunately for these guys, they cannot pass the tests or requirements to get in. 

Ethnically as well as economically the military looks like America. 

The military is a little more rural and a little more southern than the general population. There is a lot of speculation about why this might be true.  Rural people tend to be patriotic, in my experience, and they also tend to know how to use guns and operate heavy equipment.  These attitudes and skills are useful in the military.   As for the South, military service has been a tradition since the time of George Washington. There are also military families, among which lots of people serves and there are families where nobody does.   Sociologist might explain it. Habits and attitudes cross generations.

You can find a profile of the American military at this link.

My father was in the Army-Air Corps during WWII, but we don't have a military tradition in our family. I encouraged Alex and Espen to think about the military, but so far they have decided not to. I was ineligible for military service because of what the doctor called an ulcer when I was sixteen.  It is a funny story now.   I was less amused then. I tried to join in 1982 as an Airforce officer.  I passed all the tests and went in for my physical, which I thought would be a piece of cake. It was.  My blood pressure was low.  I didn’t have any physical problems.  BUT I had “history.”   Back when I was sixteen I coughed up some blood.  It scared me and my mother so to the doctor we went.  The doctor at the time called it an ulcer. I drank a lot of milk and ate bland foods for a while and it went away – forever.  But the diagnosis stuck. Ten years later, the military doctors told me that I was too sick for military service and there was nothing I could do to prove otherwise because the records said so.  Just as well.   I went in the FS a couple years later and it was a good fit.  Beyond that, my peculiar talents are probably better employed in this line of work. Still, I think I would have looked good in that blue uniform.

I worked with military attaches a lot in my career, but it was my year with the Marines in Iraq that gave me real first-hand experience with the military in action in their actual environment.  I was impressed by the Marines I got to know and had the privilege of working with in Iraq. The enlisted men are sometimes just kids, but they are a lot more responsible than those you find working at McDonald’s or not working at all.   You can trust your life to them; I did.  The way they deploy to respond to threats is poetry in motion. The officers are smart, but practical and unpretentious.  Generally, the military is better educated and better behaved than comparable civilians. Almost all the enlisted men have HS diplomas, at least.    Nearly all the officers are college educated and many have advanced degrees.   

I get angry when I see the stereotypical portrayal of military officers in much of the media. It is even worse when pinheaded pseudo intellectuals on elite campuses shun connections with the military or out of touch weirdos in places like San Francisco actually try to ban recruiting.  The negative image that engenders is persuasive in many parts of our society and it keeps lots of kids from even thinking the military.  It is a loss to them and our country.

There is a saying that if a country that separates its soldiers from its intellectuals will get fools do the fighting and cowards do the thinking.   I know from experience that the people doing the fighting are NOT fools. It is a shame if some of our self-described intellectuals don’t get to be all they could be because of their own prejudices and outdated ideas.   

Now more young Americans are taking up the challenge.   The few, the proud have become more numerous and that is good for them and for all of us.

October 06, 2009

Who Ought to Sing Tenor in the Quartet

Sandstorm coming in Al Asad IraqThe State Department blog featured an interesting discussion about discrimination against people with disabilities in the FS.  I won’t go into details.  Suffice to say the idea was that people who go to places like Afghanistan and Iraq derive career benefits and that the system is thus unfair since only the able-bodied can do these kinds of assignments. 

This takes the idea too far.  I agree that we should make reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities wherever we can, but there are some places where we can’t.  If we think a job is important enough to be done, we have to allow those who can do it to do it.

My job in Western Iraq was more vigorous than most others because we had to travel across the largest area of operations in Iraq.  I didn’t have to be in top-condition to do the job, but just humping onto a helicopter or into an MRAP with body armor and gear is hard.   The chow hall had a wide selection of food, but we were not always near the chow hall.  It gets pretty hot and dusty in the Iraqi desert.  It is indeed a physical challenge that not everyone can do.   It would be life-threatening to send anybody who couldn’t pull his own weight, for the individual as well has his colleagues.   This is just true.   

I would point out/admit that I have lost some of my ability over the years.   That is what happens as you get older.  Ability and disability are a continuum.    When it comes to running miles in less than six minutes, I have become disabled.   This gradient can be deceptive.   It is hard to identify the exact point where we are not in good enough condition for a particular task.   But that point is reached.  This is not like a made-for-TV movie or an after school special.   Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you want something or how much you try.  

Nature, war and the laws of physics are not fair.   

So what about the compensation?   I suppose it depends on what you mean by fair.   FSOs are supposed to be worldwide available.   Not all of us are and we might lose our worldwide clearance.   But good health is a definite advantage.   I don’t know how we can get around that.   One reason I have been successful is that I don’t get sick very often.   You may not succeed even if you show up, but you certainly cannot succeed if you don’t, no matter whether the reason is good or bad.

We will all sooner or later become “disabled” if we live long enough and I suppose being dead, i.e. “vitality challenged” is a significant impediment to success, so that is all our fates.  Before that time, we can do our jobs and be productive members of society, and I guess that I think of work as more an obligation than a right.   It makes a lot of sense to help everybody be as productive as they can, but you cannot achieve total equality in results. 

I had great experience but I didn’t get promoted this year for my work in Iraq.  This is okay.  I agree that we don’t necessary deserve a career jump just for going to dangerous or unpleasant places.   And you don’t need to go to Iraq to find places like that.  Many Foreign Service posts are dangerous and unpleasant.  The ability and willingness to go to these places - and do a good job while there - is part of our job, part of our work ethic.  It is worth something.  It should be encouraged.  It deserves consideration and it should not be devalued.  It makes little sense to subtract one of the big virtues of the FS just because not everybody can achieve it. We need to be reasonable about these things.  

Henry Ford said that asking “’who ought to be boss’ is like asking ‘Who ought to be tenor in the quartet?’ Obviously, the man who can sing tenor."  This goes for most things.  Ability counts and talents & abilities are not evenly distributed.  This is the way it is, whether we like it or not. 

September 03, 2009

New Media's Reach Exceeds It's Grasp

Measuring success in public affairs is hard because we don't control all, or even most of the key factors. Beyond that, we are essentially trying to measure a cascading set of conditional probabilities, each more fuzzy than the one before.  First we are trying to measure attitudes that nobody really understands.   Then we are asking where those attitudes come from.  After that we want to know the strength of the conviction and how attitude make practical differences.   Do they change behaviors or outcomes?    Complicating analysis is that effects may be significantly separated from the causes in both time and space and you have to account for the effects of temporary circumstances and random chance. 

You begin to see the problem?  All we really need to care about is what people do, but to explain that adequately, we have to consider all the things mentioned above.    

Does the Rooster Make the Sun Rise?

It only gets worse. Public affairs can be a little like peeing in the Pacific Ocean saying it caused the rising tide and practitioners, me included, can sometimes strut like roosters taking credit for the sunrise.  In other words, we are not sure how the attitudes affected behavior, nor are we sure where those attitudes came from or the strength of conviction.  On top of that we are trying to figure out how our small input created a big output.  

Not that we are always merely mendacious when taking credit, BTW.  Public affairs is indeed all about leverage.   Very small input can often create monumental outputs using leverage of the public affairs environment as it pulls in outside resources.   Even this good thing, however, is just another problem for measurement.  The equation would look like this. 

Our input + lots of other resources we don't control + luck + time = output, which MAY grow into a useful outgrowth.   We cannot control most of the factors in this equation and often cannot even know what they are, so instead we measure the reach (not the effectiveness) of OUR own inputs. Let me illustrate with one of my usual examples, not surprisingly an oak tree 

Mighty Oaks From Tiny Acorns Grow - But a Bushel of Acorns is Not an Oak Forest

If I plant an acorn, it may grow into a mighty oak.  How much credit do I deserve?  Maybe a squirrel would have planted an acorn if I didn’t.  Maybe one would just grow by itself.  Besides that,  I didn’t make the acorn.  I didn’t create the soil.   I cannot control the rain nor can I anticipate every destructive storm nor control all the bugs.  The oak tree will grow according to its form and DNA.   I cannot demand that it become a pine tree. In fact there is little I can do expect remove obstacles to it becoming the best it can be.   But if you come back 100 years later, maybe some kid will say, “My grandfather planted that tree.” 

In public affairs we are not dealing with acorns.  Our analogous measure is reach.   We can get a reasonably good measure of the number of people who COULD have received our message.   It doesn’t mean they DID receive our message or that they paid any attention.   So reach is a problematic measure. 

Don't Count the Same Guys too Many Times

A look at Facebook shows examples of opportunity, challenge & problems associated with this kind of measurement. You might have a thousand friends or a big rock star might have a million fans.  But how much are they getting the messages?  We also habitually overestimate the connections.  If you have 100 Facebook friends and each of them has 100 friends, you do not have 100 x 100 or 10,000 friends because the sets overlap.  If your friends are also each other's friends you may have only 100 in total. Overlap is usually not 100% and the real number is probably more than just 100, but it is far less than 10,000.   

Reach is not a very useful measure, but we like it because it is a relatively easy number to find or estimate AND it tends to be the largest number we are can get, especially if we engage in some willful ignorance about human attention spans and math 101 concepts of overlapping sets, as above.    

Reach Exceeds Grasp

And reach is relatively easy to astro-turf, especially in the new media.  There is an interesting article talking about how you can BUY Facebook friends and fans for as little as $.076 and $.085 respectively.  What reach!  If you have big bucks you can reach the all the world in theory.  Who can you blame if your reach exceeds your grasp, if you have a million fans who cannot remember your name or hear your message? 

Hey, the numbers are good, even if they probably overlap and may represent meaningless relationships.  We might become a little suspicious if our extrapolated fan bases (i.e. our estimate of our own fans to the exponent of their fans & friends) exceeded the total population of the earth, but achieving that might take a couple of months anyway.   

I am not saying we should not rejoice at successful numbers, but let's not try to fool others and let's not fool ourselves.  Reach provides ONLY the opportunity to engage and engagement provides only the opportunity to communicate and communication provides only to opportunity to make a difference.  You need to start with the acorns, but that doesn't mean you automatically have a grove of big oak trees.

September 01, 2009

The World at War

StukasWorld War II began on this day seventy years ago when the Nazis invaded Poland.  The fate of Poland was actually set a few days before when Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide the country between them.  Communism and fascism are variations of the same totalitarian idea.  It really wasn’t as surprising that they could get together as it seemed at the time.  

But the roots of the war go back much deeper.  We can start with the Treaty of Versailles, which was really unworkable. But nothing is inevitable in history. Had the economies not stagnated and the depression not hit, maybe Germany could have worked out its problems.   

Another root of the war was Germany itself.   The constitution of the Wiemar Republic was a model of democracy in theory, but its proportional representation, among other things, made it unstable and allowed demagogues like Hitler to leverage power.

A world at war still was not inevitable. During the 1930s, craven politicians in the great democracies appeased Hitler.   They feared war so much that they made war more likely and made the devastation more terrible when it came.  The simple argument against appeasement is that you just cannot appease dictators.  They always demand more.  But there is a more deeper one that is implicit but sometimes overlooked.  Let’s use the Hitler example. 

He was “appeased” several times.  Each time it made him hungry for more AND gave him more power to demand more.   Germany could not have launched an aggressive war unless it secured its flanks.  Imagine if there had been no Anschluss with Austria. Could Hitler have counted on security there?  Or what is Czechoslovakia had remained intact?  Czechoslovakia had formidable industry and the Sudety Mountains provided defensible terrain. The great democracies just gave that away. First they gave away the mountains (the Sudetenland) in the ostensible name of minority rights.  Then they gave away the rest to buy peace.   In all these cases, Hitler not only eliminated a threat; he also absorbed the power and got stronger.

Polish cavalryThe Nazi Germany that launched the war in 1939 was a country on steroids.   It had gobbled up Austria and Czechoslovakia, secured Memel, rebuilt and remilitarized.

Critics say the democracies could not have gone to war with Germany earlier, but then they were forced to go to war with a more powerful Germany later, a Germany they had accepted and passively helped build.  Had they resisted earlier they would have faced a weaker Germany. Hitler might have backed down short of war and he might have fallen from power if prevented from expanding.  We judge the power muscular Germany of 1939 and forget that this monster was transformed from a weakling of only six years earlier with the collaboration of peace-loving leaders in the great democracies.   

History is the sum of choices.  It is not inevitable and it is not over.   We cannot do experiments.  We never know what would have happened in different situations.   Maybe if the British and French had acted early, maybe it would have meant war earlier, which they probably could have won easier, but then we would be talking about how their belligerence provoked a needless war of choice.  More likely,  their courage and resolve would have prevented or at least mitigated the conflict.

Hitler, Chamberlain et alWe Americans were largely out of the equation – by choice.  We thought we could just ignore the rest of the world and mind our own business.  We were not active appeasers, but we were certainly appeaser enablers. 

It has been seventy years since the war began and  sixty three years since it ended.  We like to gnash our teeth about how bad the world is today, but it is a lot better than it was back in 1939.  We have avoided another worldwide conflagration since that time. The depression did not return. The world became more prosperous, tolerant, democratic and connected.  

Maybe we did learn something from history and a post-war group of wise men build alliances like NATO and various institutions that preserved the peace, or at least prevented the big war, not through wishful thinking, such as espoused by the League of Nations, but through strength and sometimes blood.

The lesson that history teaches over and over is that peace does not preserve itself.   Peace is not the natural state of mankind and freedom has been rare thorough human history.   War cannot be banished from the earth.  It can be managed and controlled for long periods of time, but only if we recognize its reality and we are willing to pay the price.  Freedom can be enjoyed ultimately only by those strong and resolute enough to defend it. The price of liberty truly is eternal vigilance. This is not a pleasant thought, but it is one to keep in mind.

Other approaches are not as successful.  Experience shows that excessive search for peace ironically lead to war and those able to defend themselves often do not need to.  On July 24, 1929, the world outlawed war. This was the Kellogg-Briand Pact. It passed the U.S. Senate by a margin of 85-1. On September 30, 1938, Neville Chamberlain declared that the Munich Treaty with Hitler was "peace for our time."  Less than a year later ... well it didn’t work out the way they hoped. 

August 06, 2009

Pathbreaking Green Government

The guy sitting next to me from the Post Office told me that he was in process of renewing the fleet of delivery trucks.   They were thinking about alternative fuels and maybe electricity.  This is where government can foster some real progress, by both leading by example and breaking a path for others to follow. 

Below is a marketplace at Clarendon Metro.  I got a flat tire on my way to work, so I locked up the bike and hopped on the Metro to get to work. This was in operation when I went to pick it up.  People were selling vegetables, bread & honey.

Marketplace at Clarendon Metro on August 5, 2009 

A problem with translating small time innovation to big time application is usually a kind of chicken and egg dilemma.   For example, you cannot deploy alternative fuel vehicles unless you have a network of alternative fuel stations to service them.   On the other hand, you don’t want to build a network of alternative fuel stations until there are enough vehicles to justify the expense of building them.   The government is big enough to do both at the same time.

This is the kind of infrastructure path breaking government should do.   It is always hard to be the first down the path.   After that it can be easy for others to follow.   Unfortunately, this is not a very interesting thing for politicians.   The path breaking function is just a slog and once it’s done everybody thinks it would have happened anyway.   The bureaucrat who authorized the spending looks like he wasted the government’s money, since he pays the money and those who follow ride almost for free.  Worse yet, it is hard for politicians to target the benefits to their own constituents or contributors.   Yet some still make the hard and right decision and they should be praised. 

One thing that might help is looking at the whole value chain and considering the longer term.   I wrote a post about the ecological value chain and there is a similar calculation possible for any sort of investment.   You learn in business 101 about break even analysis.   That just shows how much must be sold or how long it will take for an investment to pay off.   In a simple example, you might pay an extra $100 for a boiler that pays off in energy savings in two years.   It makes a lot of sense to think ahead and pay a little more now to get a bigger payoff later, but the future is always uncertain and our government budgets tend to be short term.  

 It takes a wise and unselfish manager to pay more today out of his budget for something that will pay off a little at a time for his successors.   Making the value chain more apparent helps it become more a part of decision making.   Managers need to think of things like energy usage more like long term investments that pay dividends rather than just overhead. 

I learned and thought about these things during a breakfast on “green government” sponsored by “Government Executive” magazine.    You learn a lot when you go to these things, not only from the speakers but also from the people you sit next to.   And you get to eat breakfast too.  Sweet.

July 13, 2009

Hanging Around

As long I am wallowing in doubt and indecision, I have a few more thoughts about work, making a contribution and retirement. 

Retiirement chart showing that people are planning to work longerI could retire today… in theory.  FS is like the military in that respect.  We can get our full pensions after 20 years if we are at least fifty years old.  I have achieved both.  We have an up-or –out system.   Had I not been promoted in 2007, and presuming no promotions in 2008 or 2009, they would be kicking me out come this October.  As it is now, I can stay until February 2016.  My last promotion bought me six years and they gave me an extra year as compensation for my year in Iraq.

We are only allowed to stay in each pay-grade-class a certain number of years and we only get 27 years to jump into the Senior Foreign Service.  The grim reaper is always taking the hindmost.    The system, IMO, has a major flaw in that it puts faster risers at greater risk, since they come sooner up against their time in class.   We also have an interesting concept of “opening your window.”  You cannot be promoted into senior FS unless you open your window.  When you do that, it starts a clock ticking.  You get six evaluations and if you don’t make it to SFS by the time the clock runs out, your window shuts and you are involuntarily retired.    Your life can be extended if you go to a place like Iraq or have a year of training (as I did at Fletcher School, which is why I would have gotten the boot in 2009 instead of 2008).  A cautious person would wait until he had been in the FS for 21 years.  That would mean that he would lose nothing if he did not get promoted, since he would get kicked out of the FS in general in 27 years.   Of course, anybody who does that is probably not very ambitious. 

I opened my window as soon as I was eligible.   I didn’t want to hang around like a fart in a phone booth.   I could have survived as an FS01 until 2012, so that would have been only a four year difference (w/o the long term training year).  On the other hand, they could promote me and I would have more options.  I honestly didn’t think I would make it.  The odds are against you.  I knew that I should not hang around too long, but I also knew I would not have the courage to just set out w/o the boot.  So it was a kind of play or trade option. Get up or get out.

There is a kind of FS life-cycle and I fell into it for awhile.  When we are around forty-five, we complain about the lack of recognition and start bragging that we will be out the door the minute we become eligible for retirement, presumably earning the big bucks in the private sector. When we turn forty-nine, we go silent.  We stop talking about retirement in general and start to count the years until our time in the FS runs out.  A couple years later, we start complaining again, but this time it is decry the injustice that a “good worker like me” may be forced out while “I still have so much to contribute.” 

My question is about how much I still have to contribute.   As I wrote a few days ago, I am concerned that some of the new media is passing me by.  A lot of my skills have become obsolete.    Of course, I can learn new ones, but is it really a good deal to taxpayers for somebody like me to retrain to learn something that a lower-paid newer employee can just do out of habits learned as a child growing up with computers?  

It is always a dilemma to weigh experience and judgment against raw talent and brain-power.    Experience improves judgment, but only within a range of similar situations.  In times of rapid or discontinuous change, experience with former systems may be as much as an impediment as an advantage.   Old generals know how to fight the old wars.  They always are in danger of being overtaken by a revolution in military affairs.  The tank means changed tactics. The same goes for all walks of life, if somewhat less dramatically. That is why you have to clear out experience sometimes and let younger people in.  The experience of the past hangs on their necks less heavily or not at all.   Our up-or-out system is supposed to guard against this sort of complacency, but eventually you get to the end of the trail and maybe you get to the end of your own trail before they vote you off the island.

This is not a problem limited to the FS. In fact, we are relatively better off than many others precisely because of our up-or-out system.  The economic downturn has changed the equations.   All over the country people are delaying retirement. This is good in that it saves money on pensions and keeps people productive.   But it also clogs the arteries of an organization.   You need people leaving at the top in order to give people on other rungs of the ladder the opportunity to climb.

IMO, older people should keep working as long as they want to and as long as they can.  In fact, given the upcoming Social Security and entitlement crisis many will have to do just that, like it or not,  but maybe not in the same jobs or even the same professions.  You get stale after a while, as the pathways your good ideas and sound practices have blazed become ruts and craters that limit options for yourself and others. 

My baby boom generation is the biggest, healthiest and best educated cohort of soon-to-be senior citizens in the history of the world.  We see old people running marathons, discovering new things and opening new businesses.   We still have a lot to contribute and a duty not to sponge off the smaller generations that follow us.  I think we will see an amazing flowering of entrepreneurship among older people.    The Internet will greatly facilitate this trend.  

But maybe we need to be bumped out of our ruts. Our experience is valuable to the extent that it does something valuable.   It is a tool and like any tool, it must be used. It does not entitle us to anything, any more than the ownership of a hammer entitles you to pound.

I don’t know where I am going with this.   It is the time again for me to look for a new assignment and so the thoughts like this are clogging my brain. I have options where I can use my experience in new ways.  But I am not sure what to do.   Should I go down a path where I can use the skills I have developed, where I am reasonably sure of success, or try to cut a new one? 

June 11, 2009

Working Hard/Hardly Working

I admit that I have a pretty sweet deal.  I like most of the things I do at work.  In fact, I would pay to go to many of the meetings and conferences they pay me to attend.  I am not saying it is all great, but the good things far outweigh the negatives.   I think about my job a lot, but that is hard to place in the “work” category, since if I didn’t have this job I would probably be studying many of the same things re new media, persuasion and knowledge management. 

Clock at Courthouse in Arlington

I purport to put in long hours. I rarely get home before 7 or 8 pm, which means that I spend around 10 hours at work, but what is work?  And I can usually carve out time during the day for exercise etc.  I have only recently come to terms with this.  I used to feel guilty and lazy.  I couldn’t understand how I could be doing okay w/o working very hard. But after almost than twenty-five years of decent progress, I had to rethink this. Something seemed to be working.

Most people think or at least say that they are busy.   Much of this is self inflicted work.   Every day I see people doing things that need not be done or doing things in such a way that they actually create more work for themselves and others.   But the biggest reason people think they are busy is that they are fooling themselves. 

WSJ had an article about that, giving some scientific backing to my observation.   When people are asked how much they work, they invariably come up with significant higher hours than when they follow it closely with a dairy.   Some of this comes from the definition of work, as I mentioned above.   I read the WSJ, Economist and many other such publications.  I could not do my job if I didn’t keep up with the latest news and innovations.  But what % of that can I call work?  Most our high estimates of work hours comes from giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We might think that we usually work ten hour days and count the times when we work less as unusual exceptions.    But maybe there are more “exceptional” than “normal” days.

We have to remember that “normal” doesn’t mean typical or average.   It means the way something would be under good conditions.   A normal man would be healthy, not overweight and not deformed in any significant way.  This is not a typical or average man.   (BTW – an “average” man has less than two legs.  Think about it.  Nobody has more than two legs and some people have less, so the average is less than two.  Statistics can be interesting.)  IN that respect a normal day might be one where you worked through the day w/o important interruptions arriving and leaving on time.  There are not many normal days.

In respect to work, you have to consider both typical and normal. My first job in the FS was as public affairs officer in Porto Alegre. I was ambitious and worked hard, but I was distressed when I talked to colleagues who seemed a lot smarter and harder working.   My results were usually better than typical, but never up to what I considered normal. Life was too easy and I was sure I was just not doing something everybody else was doing.  I worried about this through my next posts, until I figured out that most people just think they are busier than they are and all the talk about constant work is just people talking. Pointing this out to people does not make me universally popular and I have to qualify the statement.  There are some times when you are truly busy, but most of the time not. Beyond that, if you are consistently working more than nine hours a day, and I am not talking about just being there but really working, you are burning out.  It is like trying to sprint through a Marathon. The results matter and sometimes LESS “work” will produce better results. 

I am not making a plea for indolence but I am very suspicious of people who claim to work 70 hour weeks all the time. I think there is a lot of useless energy spent and probably a lot less time on task than they say and probably than they think.

There is some virtue in doing less, especially if you find the points of maximum leverage and then use them. It is often better to clear obstacles than to push harder.   All good leaders should be a little lazy, create the proper conditions for the success of others and then get out of the way.   People need to be free to innovate and do things their way.  Constant hectoring will just give you a sore throat, make everybody less productive and create a lot of work for everybody.

Anyway, I put my time in at work and try to earn my salary, but I know that sometimes it is best to do less but do the right thing.

This story is tangential but it applies.  This guy has a clogged pipe. He called the plumber who says that he can fix the problem, but it will cost fifty dollars.  The guy agrees.   The plumber takes out a little hammer, walks to a place along the pipes and taps it a couple of times.    Everything is fixed.   The guy is outraged.  “Fifty dollars,” he says, “for a few taps?  I want an itemized bill.”   The plumber writes out a receipt.   “Tapping the pipe - $.05.  Knowing how and where to tap - $49.95.”

May 20, 2009

The Bubble All Over Again?

This image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was reviewed on 16 October 2006(2006-10-16) by the administrator or trusted user Howcheng, who confirmed that it was available on Flickr under the above license on that date.It is starting to look like the bubble.   Nobody has really figured out how to monetize Web 2.0 and most of the current value of Web 2.0 companies comes from expectation of future value.  There is great excitement about building online communities, but it is hard to get these communities to do very much except be communities.   There is no doubt Web 2.0 has already changed how people communicate and how they do business.  But how can we really use it?

There was a South Park episode last year where one of the kids became an internet sensation in hopes of making a pile of money.   When he went to collect, he was told that his great fame had indeed earned him millions of internet bucks, but that they were not exchangeable into real money.    In PD 2.0 we are not trying to earn money, but we are trying to achieve sustained changes in attitudes and behavior in fields important to U.S. policies.   What if we reach millions of people only to find that our internet influence is not exchangeable into anything that matters to us?

What about the holy grail of Web 2.0, going viral?  Some top viral videos are at this link. Many of the things that go viral are just silly, like a cat flushing a toilet.   But I question the effectiveness even of the serious contenders.   It is great to get exposure, but what is it good for?   I remember a study of the "Clio Awards."   Those were the academy awards of commercials, where the funniest and most artistic commercials were chosen by the cognoscenti of commercials.    The problem was that the winners were not particularly good at selling the products they represented.   In fact, they were below average.    People often loved the commercial, but didn't care about the product and sometimes they couldn't even tell what product was being advertised.   Many of the viral videos are like the Clio award winners that get lots of attention and even critical acclaim, but don't do the job.

There is also no reliable way to predict if something will go viral. Studying successful viral videos is not much use.    We can identify - in retrospect - what they did right, but when we compare this to the millions of others that didn't make it, we find that they also did many of the same things.   It is a type of survivor bias, like attributing special skills to the winner of a very long and multi-round game of Russian roulette.   The guy would probably write a book.  He and all of us would think that his astonishing success must be due to something other than random chance, but we would all be wrong and we should not be enticed into the playing the game with his "proven" method.

The lesson is NOT that we stop exploring new media.  Rather it is that we should not fall in love with it or with any particular aspect, platform or technology.   It is easy to be beguiled by large numbers and exponential growth rates but we should be persistent in questioning HOW we can use it in PD.   Some things will be very useful, but maybe not always or everywhere and others might just be exciting w/o payback.   It is good to think about the differences.

Remember during the bubble with that sock puppet?  Everybody loved the marketing.   They even bought a super bowl add featuring the sock puppet.  They were defunct less than a year later.  I could never figure out how most of those companies could make any money; after a while, neither could anybody else.

May 19, 2009

How Strategic Communication Helped the Surge Succeed in Iraq

Colonel Patrick Malay, my friend and colleague from Iraq, is coming to Washington and together we will make a presentation at the Strategic Communication Network (formerly known as Fusion Team) on May 29 about the importance of strategic communication in Iraq and how the Marines and the ePRT worked with the people and leaders of Anbar to help create stability and relative prosperity.  Below is more or less what I plan to say.

PIC ceremony Al Anbar

Every move you make conveys a message and actions often speak louder than words.   This is especially important in a disrupted and dangerous place like Anbar province was in 2007-8.   But the words and how you express them are also important.   You need a combination of talking and doing and that is what we were lucky enough to have in Western Anbar when the Marines, the State Department and other parts of the USG worked productively with the Iraqis to make the place safer and more prosperous.

I thought and wrote a lot about it at the time and I recommend you look at my webpage from the time.   The passage of time has strengthened my conviction that we achieved something special.   But I don’t think it was something unique and I do believe that the lessons of Western Anbar have meaning in other places and times. 

All Necessary; None by itself Sufficient

As with many successes and most failures, it seems easier to see the causes when you look back than it was at the time of the events.   We had a fortunate combination of factors.  None of them alone would have been sufficient to achieve success, but each of them was necessary.  

The most obvious is that the people turned against the insurgents and the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The insurgents and AQl, it turned out, really were bad.  When their promises were replaced by the reality of murder, mutilation, rape & destruction, the people of Anbar realized that letting them get established had been a mistake.  Unfortunately, standing up to the terrorists was dangerous and often fatal, not only for the brave individuals involved, but also for their family and friends. Early opposition ended up headless in roadside ditches.  AQI would often even go after anybody who tried to remove the bodies. This was an example of AQI’s strategic communication. A headless body makes one hell of an impression, especially if you think you might be next. 

Terrorism indeed created terror that paralyzed opposition.  So the second part of the puzzle was needed – the surge.

The surge was more than just an increase in coalition troop numbers.   It also coincided with a change in strategy.   In Anbar, it meant that Marines protected the people locally and went to live in Iraqi communities among the people they were supposed to protect.  They trained police & security forces and held the ground, but their most important strategic communication message was just being there.    For civilian populations in war zones, the perception of safety is crucial.  The perception of safety creates real safety as more people go onto the streets, interact with each other and begin to get the confidence to stand up to the bad guys or at least help others do so.

The supporting strategic communication message the Marines sent was consistency.    The people needed to know that the Marines would be there for a long time. If the population suspects that coalition forces will leave and the bad guys will be able to return to chopping heads, nobody will cooperate.  The only way you can create the perception that you are there for a long time is to be there for a long time and have the reputation for keeping your word.  Marines stayed and established a reputation for honesty and persistence.  

So we have two necessary parts of the puzzle.   The people have turned against AQI and the greater numbers of coalition forces are making it to be both openly against the terrorists and alive at the same time.  Both these things are necessary and probably in that order. But we still need something more.  

Although basic stability always precedes prosperity, stability cannot be long maintained if the people are miserable and have no meaningful economic activity. Stability and prosperity are symbiotic and mutually reinforcing.  This is where our ePRT came in.  A PRT certainly cannot create prosperity, but we could help create conditions where the Iraqis could build, or rebuild, their own prosperous community.   

We did this by emphasizing the structure of a civil society. These are the things that are so ubiquitous in our own society that we rarely even notice them anymore, things like a functioning court system, protections for private property, transportation, clean water, distribution of goods and a reasonable functioning financial system.

Let me say again that we did not, we could not, create this kind of thing.   We could, however, help the Iraqis do it for themselves.   We could and did make grants of money.  We sponsored training.   We (and even more the military) physically built things like schools, roads and bridges, but I content that the thing that made all these activities into a successful whole was strategic communications.   There is really not much we did for the Iraqis that they could not have done for themselves.  But the fact that we were out there encouraged them and paved the way for progress.

It is Better to Light a Single Candle than to Curse the Darkness

Dust storm at Al Asad Iraq near RCT 5 HQ

Let me give one example.  It is not the most important example, but it is the one I like the best.   I called it the “String or Emeralds”.  You can see more about it at the String of Emeralds Link.

John Matel at Iraqi experimental forest

Iraq is an arid country, plagued by dust storms and drought. But the dust storms and drought are not completely natural.   Some is caused by humans and livestock destroying the natural vegetation cover by bad farming methods and overgrazing.   This has been a problem for 4000 years and our PRT could not solve it.    But after 4000 years, we have learned something about soils.   Our PRT’s agricultural attaché was an expert on rehabilitating irrigated dry soils damaged by salinization (salts deposit is a big problem in dry Iraq). We also took the lessons from our own dust bowl of the 1930s.  Planting trees serves to slow the wind and catch some of the blowing dirt.   I looked for opportunities to help and I found some.  The Iraqis understood the need for this too, but the effort had been neglected under Saddam Hussein and collapsed utterly during the war. 

We went to some of the oases and raised the profile and that encouraged the Iraqis to think more about it too.    The strategic communications lesson is that when someone in authority just shows interest, things can happen. There is no real magic to it. It just takes effort. The trees will grow and the future will be better than the past.

This is my Western Anbar progress report from about the time I left. You can get a better idea if you look at the sections.

When does strategic communication work?  The short answer is when it is embedded in other things that are working. All the talking in the world could not have made Western Anbar safe if not for the Marines & our brave Iraqi friends.   But communications enhanced and spread the good news.  And by spreading it and making it believable the perception of security started to become more real.   Telling the right stories creates a reinforcing loop, a virtuous circle or just plain success.

May 18, 2009

The Fault Lies Not in our Stars, but in Ourselves

I have been talking to leaders of technology firms in Brazil and it has been very interesting.  While it is not appropriate to post details, some of the general thoughts are applicable across a wide spectrum of endeavors and I will share them here.

Bridge between forest parks in Sao Paulo Brazil

One of the problems I have wrestled with has to do with the nature of knowledge and how to pass it within groups and organizations.   I find that this is a common problem and nobody seems to have developed a really robust solution.   I don’t think there is one; at least we cannot create a system that will take care of it.   Knowledge cannot be separated from its human carriers.  We like to use the term “viral” and it really fits here.  Passing knowledge just takes commitment and work by smart people.  Too often, organizations try to outsource their brains by giving the job of thinking and analyzing to consultants or computers.  Well, the buck stops with the decision maker.  He/she certainly doesn’t need to be an expert on all things.  Those consultants and computers can help inform decisions, but they cannot make them.   I was thinking about these things during our discussions.

Let me start by making a distinction between information and knowledge.  The two are synonyms and often used interchangeable, but in the deeper meaning information is the raw material that becomes knowledge when it is when it is understood and integrated into thinking.

Many management challenges are common to both public and private business and one of the most persistent is the difficulty of passing reliable knowledge and experience within an organization.  One of the most confusing circumstances is when information passes w/o the knowledge to make it meaningful or put it in proper context.   It is confusing because the recipients of the information may not perceive the problem.   They may feel satisfied that they are “informed” but remain misled. 

This is an age old problem.  As any organization grows beyond the size where frequent face-to-face contacts are common and easy, information sharing and knowledge production become an acute challenge.  It is especially true today in the fast changing and multifaceted environment created by the new media.  Information is held by specific individuals who may have very deep knowledge in a particular specialty, but not know how it fits into the bigger picture and may be unaware of the significance of what they know in other contexts.   In an information rich environment, the problem is how to arrange it to make it useful and how to tap into tacit knowledge that people may possess but be unable to properly express.  A learning organization is one where the total knowledge and expertise available to the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.   This condition is easier to aspire than achieve. 

Technology provides some help.  One way to address the challenge is through a wiki where everyone can contribute as well as see, consider and enhance what others have contributed.   In theory, a wiki can tap into the wisdom of the group.   It can be made available only to particular groups, to the entire organization or even to a more general public.   A larger group will create greater management problems, but will likely tap into a more diverse set of talent and knowledge.   Remember that no matter how good you and your colleagues are, the smartest people on any particular subject probably don’t work for you.  Your decisions will be better if you can think of a way to bring them in.

The amount of openness is a management decision.   However management cannot really decide if individuals in the organization will enthusiastically contribute.   Enthusiasm cannot be mandated, but it can be incentivized and those incentives must come from a true commitment at the top.   Good contributions must be recognized and the inevitable good-faith errors must be corrected but not punished.  

The new media allows and requires many choices.  The mix of tools changes depending on the situation and they change over time.  Yesterday’s solution is often today’s problem, but that does not necessarily imply that any mistakes were made.   Employees have to be confident that their good solutions that solve today’s problems will not be held against them when the situation changes tomorrow.  It takes a long time to build the kind of trust that lets people stick their necks out and months or years of work can be dissipated by one serious breach.  Leadership cannot indulge its emotions or look for people to blame when sound decisions are overtaken by events.  These are pernicious breaches of trust.

Another important aspect of knowledge sharing is to have the knowledge available to share in the first place.  Diverse and dispersed world-wide organizations tend to have information but it is often not translated into useful knowledge.  One tech fix is to make everything is available online in “the cloud.”  Groups working on particular tasks may not be near each other geographically or even in the same time zones, but they can be virtually side by side.  We have talked about this for many years, but technology has only recently made it practical, since real collaboration requires good connections and a lot of bandwidth.  

We have a great opportunity.  There is a lot of low hanging fruit and that we should take advantage of new technologies and interested participants right away.   Opportunities are out there.  It is there for us.  The most important obstacle is our own inability to take them and make them work.  We have to work to create learning organizations.  It is a steep hill to climb, but not beyond our ability.

Hill on street in Sao Paulo Brazil on May 14, 2009

Evaluate AND Take Action

They also emphasized the need to evaluate AND prune dead wood.  Sections are evaluated every six months to see what is working and what is not.   An organization in this competitive world cannot allow itself to hold on to programs and platforms that are not performing, no matter how many people work there or love them.   The less performing sections are cannibalized to support the ones that are doing better. 

This creative destruction is a challenge in government.   Private firms are not really better at anticipating the future than we are, but they are a lot more effective at getting rid of things that are not performing.   They just cannot afford to keep or pour more resources into the programs that are losing money.

The title of this post is a paraphrase of a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.   Let me end with another one that applies.   “There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads to fortune.”

April 20, 2009

Belling the Cat & Other Great Ideas

An outside consultant is someone who borrows your watch and charges you a fee to tell you the time.

People have been trying to sell us information research, outreach or new media services for a long time.  They are good people, usually smart guys with impressive credentials and great sounding programs.  But they remind me of stray cats trying to become house cats. They are very friendly and offer a lot, but once they get a steady supply of cream I am not sure they won't become a nuisance.  I understand the need to work with outside experts, but I have some simple concerns.

The first is a simple sourcing question.  Whenever someone comes with really impressive and precise information, I have to ask where he got it.  Conclusions are no better than the source materials/data they are based on and the soundness of the method with which they were collected, but a clever consultant or academic can build impressive castles on the shifting, soft sand of supposition.  No matter how impressive the tower, the foundation is what matters.

A second question has to do with our own motivations.  We should use outside experts to "rent" expertise we don't want to buy/develop permanently.  We should not use them as CYA, trying  to outsource decision making or creating/buying systems that will run on auto-pilot.

Of course, some things are routine and well enough understood that we can just have a procedure. The hard decisions are hard precisely because they do not fall into that category.  We cannot abdicate responsibility for these decisions. The systems should be decision support, not decision substitution.

A third factor comes as a result of both of the above considerations.  It is possible to create an impressive looking expert-system that leads you inexorably to a wrong decision. We have to guard against it and always consider the inputs and sources.  Maybe the sources are flawed or the analysis in error, but the system is so beautiful and elegant that it creates the impression of greater certainty than the information permits.   If not for the system, you might see that for yourself, but what would have been an obvious flaw is obscured by the impressive and beautiful system built around it.

An important reason for this is the effect of aggregation, which is a fourth factor.  I might make a reasonable guess.  You might too and so might ten others.   Each of us has made a reasonable estimate with a degree of risk.  When we aggregate our guesses, they seem much more certain, but may have introduced all sorts of biases.   The collective judgment may be worse than any of the individuals.   

Let me hasten to say that reasonable aggregation of diverse information is a great way to arrive at good decisions.  But when someone creates a model and then runs it, there is a good chance of introducing bias, maybe unintentional, and a significant risk of faulty aggregation.  I have seen lots of examples of information cascades, where the first (wrong) guesses influence the others.  (I have even created a few as experiments.  It is not hard.)  If the model is opaque, as they often are, we can be easily fooled. The worst case is when the model sort of works but because of random events or factors not property accounted in the model.  Arbitrary coherence.

It is not what you don't know that is most dangerous.  It is what you know that isn't true. 

A fifth factor is a kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle of human affairs.  The very fact that we are doing something, or even just observing, alters the underlying reality.   This is especially true of a big player like the USG.   We need to take account of the effects of our actions and recognize the developing situations.  The correct answer today may well be the worst solution six months from now, w/o either answer being wrong.  That is why I am a great believer in iterative research and programs.  You have to see how things develop and then take the next step.  Of  course you need an overall context, but system-building consultants often become too vested in their peculiar models. They want to continue to apply it even when it has become inappropriate.

Which brings us to my sixth concern: an important reason why we do programs is to create the knowledge and relationship base among our own people.  If we outsource activities, we also outsource or give away the relationships and intimate knowledge of what we are doing. It is sort of like a student hiring another kid to write his term paper.  We become dependent on the models and reports and may be misled when we let our own powers atrophy.  We get the big bucks because of our experience, judgment and knowledge.  If we outsource the tasks that require them, we are not only avoiding the important value we add, we are also giving away the things that build future human capital.

Finally, I always have to ask if the service or research is useful. This seems an obvious question, but it often goes unasked.  We get so bedazzled by the graphs, fascinated by the immensity of a problem and/or baffled by the bull shit, that we never ask, "So, what do I do with this?" 

For something to be useful, it must be capable of being used - AND used by us, not some theoretical all-powerful actor.  When I hear something could be done, I want to know by whom and who has already done it.   I am a little leery of someone trying to tell me that I will be the first one ever to achieve something.  There is often silence at this point.  Many consultants are so honestly in love with their own products that they are not ready for the disconfirming question. Remember the fable of the mice who thought it would be a good idea to put a bell on the cat?  The plan was great until they asked who could do it.

Excuse me if I slip into hyperbole, but if I know there is a vast civilization on a planet of the Alpha Centauri system, but I have no way to contact them or get there, it is very interesting, but not useful information.  It is momentous and I want to know, but it is not useful. Among the compelling but useless information people often try to sell is polling data about whether or not people in X country like the U.S.  This is interesting information, but even assuming it doesn't fall into one or more of the traps mentioned above, it is useless unless there is something I, we, the USG can do about it. 

For that I need more granular information.  Anyway, I don't have to pay for that kind of general information.  I can get it free from Pew Research, Brookings, Heritage or many of the others who study such things.  (I found 33 official or authoritative studies on the subject.  I am sure there are more.)  

Useful means actionable.   Most of what people are peddling is not.

I learn a lot from listening to these presentations, and I am glad they invite me to hear them. I feel a little bad for them.  They seem honest and earnest, but the chances they will sell much are slim.  I can often think of very good uses for particular parts of the product line, but I doubt I will ever find an acceptable whole solution.  If I do, I will advocate that we buy that system, and I can retire.

April 09, 2009

Let the Games Begin


Continuing my thoughts on games in public affairs, interactive games will soon become the leading method of persuasion and a key advertising medium.   I know that is a sweeping statement.   Those familiar only with the “Space Invaders” game generation will think I am nuts.  The “Myst” people will see the merit in the statement, and those playing World of Warcraft would heartily endorse it, if they could divert their attention long enough from their games.   Games are already a primary way that young people interact with data, each-other and the world in general.   Even the EU now thinks that gaming might be good for young minds, so we better get used to the idea that games.  For a funnier approach, take a look at this video.

Games’ pervasive persuasive ability is part of a continuum of imagined worlds so let’s digress a little to the more familiar previous persuasion champion – the play (or in the modern versions the movie or TV show).  Sophocles and Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, O’Neil and George Lucas & Steven Spielberg were/are masters of persuasion and they all knew what they were doing.   Think of a play as a very long commercial message that you volunteer to watch.  And remember that if a thirty-second commercial can sell you a product, don’t you think an hour and thirty minute play or a thirty minute TV show can sell you an idea or a lifestyle.

The writers, producers, directors and actors work together to sell you an idea.  Sometimes it is  innocuous; sometimes not.  Shakespeare sold us all the Tudor version of English history and we bought that Richard III was nothing but a sneaky rat and Henry V was a great and brave hero.  There is some truth to some of these characterizations, but they are fictional caricatures, not history.  It was a conscious effort at propaganda, but it was so skillfully done that it is still part of the fabric of our society four centuries later.   A skillful current propagandist is Oliver Stone.   Many people draw their knowledge of JFK or Nixon from his movies and the images are strong.  Even when you know the real history of the events, it is hard to get the image out of your mind.   The living, moving image often trumps the truth of history.   That is the power of the play/movie/TV Show.    

The writers/producers/directors control ALL the characters.   They can make the ones they don’t like unlikable or stupid.  It is all a set up.  They can structure events so that faults are revealed AND they can give characters the faults to be revealed.    It is analogous to your own dream, where all the characters are you but they seem to be others and that is how you react.   In every play, for persuasion purposes, the bad guys and the good guys are on the same side.  They are all working for the guy who wrote the play.  But the illusion remains.    Directors sometimes disingenuously talk about characters as independent or they ridicule critics by pointing out that it is only fiction.   Think of how you view familiar historical people or events.  Now consider whether your image came from reading actual history or just watching it on TV.   

BTW – the power of the producer has increased in Orwellian fashion.  Now many directors go back to their movies and change them to fit the current situation and sensibilities.   The “Star Wars” you saw in 1979 is not the same one you will see today.  “He who controls the past controls the future and he who controls the present controls the past,” is the philosophy of Ingsoc and Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984.”

But the power of the play/movie/TV show pales in comparison to a modern game.  Viewer might get involved in a drama, but not matter how involved the couch potato gets, he is still a passive participant.   None of his intelligence or perception will change the course of the investigation on “Law & Order”  and none of his passionate tears will prevent one death on “House” or “ER” and the rerun will unfold exactly as it did the first time.

Not so in a game.   The game provides some choices and the illusion of free will.   What you do makes a difference to the outcome.   That is why games are so addictive.   You get to be a player in all the senses of that word.    The irony is that BECAUSE you are making choices and seeming to go your own way, the power of persuasion is multiplied.  

The game maker sets all the parameters.   He can suspend the universal laws of physics.  He can dictate the nature of human interactions.   He can dictate the nature of human nature itself.  Animals can become wise; inanimate object can be animated.   The game maker can determine heroes and villains, but now they are also YOUR friends and enemies.    Humans have a wonderful capacity to personify animals and objects.   It is much easier when these things have elements of a real personality.    Games create that.

I don’t think most game makers have an explicit social or political agenda, but they do have perceptions and prejudices that color their view of reality and so come to color the reality of many others. 

I no longer play many video games and I date myself when I say that used to play Sid Meyer’s Civilization, a game from the 1990s.   It is the only game that I really know well and it is familiar enough to many people, so let me use one example from that game.  You can find examples from other games at this link.

Civilization requires you to develop from a society of Stone Age wanders into a future with space travel.  As you develop various technologies, you get more options, both in civil and military matters.   The game makers have determined the relative merits of particular advances and you get them as givens. You compete with other civilizations and you have to spend a lot of time defending yourself and there was some criticism that the game was too warlike, but so was human history.

The first rendition of the game the other civilizations had characteristics broadly correlated to their historical activities.    For example, Hammurabi and the Babylonians were builders who spent relatively more time developing irrigation and road.  Lincoln and the Americans were technologically savvy and likely to develop democracy.   Shaka and the Zulus were less interested in technology and were more aggressive in attacking others.   The most aggressive and dangerous people on the board were Genghis Khan and the Mongols.   This was very un-pc and it disappeared from subsequent versions of the game.   

So the message of the later versions was that the unpopular idea of national character or any sort of cultural determinism was completely useless.   This is a very important point, BTW.   IF applied to the real world, it would mean that over time you would expect the Swiss and the North Koreans to behave in the same ways and that their national character would have no predictive value.   This, BTW, is the message of cultural relativism that you get in many universities.    If you get it directly, you can counter with the Swiss-North Korean argument.   If you imbibe it unconsciously as a teenager, it just becomes part of your world view.

But there is even a deeper message implicit in the game.  You, as the leader of your civilization, have nearly complete knowledge.  You make choices based on calculation or preference, but you can be logical.   Real world leaders never have this option.   There is always fog and uncertainty.   So if players take a lesson from the game, they have way too much confidence in the ability of leaders to run the economy or engage in foreign policy.   Conversely, if the leader does not deliver as promised, they are less likely to understand the constraints, unavoidable ignorance or mitigating circumstances.

Anyway, more and more we will use games to persuade and train.   Games are artificial models, created by humans, bundled with their unconscious preconceptions and prejudices and often peppered with deliberate manipulation.  As with any model, they represent one reality.  They are not THE reality.  But they sure seem like it to the players and I wonder what sorts of mind-sets the games are creating.   Games can create an entirely artificial world, whose characteristics players may carry over to the real world they (sometimes) live in.

April 08, 2009

Tell it Plain

Below is Smokey the Bear, no doubt reading plainly written government regulations.

Smokey the Bear at the USDA forestry exhibition in Washington 

The Congress in its wisdom has mandated that Federal employees should write in plain language. This is a great idea, but what does it mean?

I write in a simple way.  I don’t use the passive voice very much.  Most of my sentences are simple noun, verb & object.   I don’t use circumlocutions, but I do use the most appropriate word, for example, “circumlocutions”.   Using that one word avoids having to write two or more sentences.  

Plain writing requires a wide vocabulary. You have to use the words appropriate to the ideas you are trying to express.  Speaking of writing plainly does not mean making it so easy that a fifth-grader can understand.  Some concepts are beyond the understanding of a fifth-grader.     We have education to improve people so that they can indeed understand more.

Lord knows that government writing can be convoluted and confusing.  (Note the use of the word “convoluted”.  That is the best word for this thought.  An easier synonym for convoluted is difficult, but that does not adequately convey my meaning.)  I guess I am afraid that this great idea will be misused by some in the government to dumb-down our writing.    Some overzealous official might strip out words like “circumlocutions”, “convoluted” and … “overzealous”.   That would make my writing more simple-minded, but not simpler and not easier to understand.

There is no small irony in assigning a bureaucratic process to the art of writing.  Bureaucracy is the biggest reason our writing is difficult to understand (note that I did not use the word “opaque”, which was my first thought.  Instead I had to use three words (“difficult to understand”) that do not exactly convey the meaning I had in mind.    Much is lost when writing becomes a lowest common denominator group exercise.  The first goal of bureaucratic language is not to offend anybody, BTW. Conveying meaning is always a subordinated goal.

When I was in Poland, one of my Polish staff wrote a note asking for office supplies.   It was very clear, but also very clearly written by someone whose native language was not English.  The person receiving the request sent it back to me with a snarky comment “Didn’t you edit this.”   I wrote back much more politely, “No, I did not edit it.   I understood what she wanted and so do you.  Just send us the requested supplies and don’t bother me again.”  This was very clear and it caused some consternation among the admin folks.  My boss even called me to caution me about hostility, but they never bothered us again and it was worth it.   Had I knuckled under, I would have empowered the pedants and all of us would have spent many hours rewriting great prose like “Please send five boxes of pencils.” 

Government employees spend an inordinate amount of time on these sorts of things. Life is a lot easier if you just say no.  

And, BTW, the legislation specifically does NOT apply to regulations.  They can remain as opaque as ever, so that ordinary educated people cannot figure them out with any certainty.  I think we call that the "lawyer and bureaucrat full employment act."

April 05, 2009

Games: Monopoly

Monopoly Polish versionAt work we are experimenting with using games in public affairs, so I have been thinking about them and reading about them.   I just got a book called Changing the Game, re how video games change ways we do business.   We are very much influenced by games because games create reality.   I plan to write a couple posts on this general subject, but to get my thoughts rolling I considered Monopoly.


Left is the Polish version of Monopoly.  I didn't have the original American version, but I used the familiar names of properties in my post.  The proliferation of Monopoly around the world shows its general appeal.


Monopoly was the game we played when I was a kid.  I played it with my sister and with my friends.   I didn’t realize what it was teaching me and the subtle persuasion that was going on.   Learning and persuasion are closely related, of course.   When we learn a system, we are simultaneously persuaded that it is good and/or useful.   So what does Monopoly teach/persuade? 

You learn a lot about statistics.   Dice produce random results within a pattern.   There are thirty-six possible combinations of two dice that produce the twelve numbers we might throw.  Seven is the most common number, since you can get seven with six different combinations of the two dice.   Least common are two and twelve, since there is only one combination that can produce each of these.

The Monopoly board accounts for this.    You cannot buy a property that is seven steps from “GO” and the most common landing spaces are occupied by “Chance,” or “Community Chest.”  The probabilities created by the dice would become less important as the game progressed, except various events of the game tend to bring you back to certain places.  You often are told to “advance to GO”, which resets the probabilities.  Seven spaces from “GO” is “Chance,“ BTW.   You are also frequently told to “Advance to the nearest RR” or sent to jail.   Seven spaces from Jail is “Community Chest” and there are no monopoly property possible seven paces from a RR except the green property North Carolina.  

Monopoly, Polish version "start" 

Given all the permutations, it is generally the lower cost-lower rent properties that get most of the business.   Mediterranean and Baltic are the most visited properties, but it is hardly worth having them, even with a hotel.   Boardwalk is the killer property, but people tend not to land there and it costs a lot to build houses and hotels.   IMO the best combination of affordability, frequency and income are the Red group of Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana.   The next best are the Orange New York group.    I am sure that somebody has figured out exact probabilities. 

The winning strategy is to get the best property you can and build as soon as possible.    There is a big advantage to being first since you will get the resources to expand (and deprive your opponents of same). 

Monopoly Polish Version, free parking

Fortune favors the bold and a person who is timid and refused to deploy his current money to produce future income cannot win.  Of course, the reverse is not necessarily true.  You can know all the things you should know and play superbly and still lose.  If you could just do something with a certain guarentee of success, it wouldn't be a game anybody would play.  There is no uncertainty in dice, but there is probability and risk. In Monopoly, you can assess risk.  Over the long term you will win if you do the right thing.  Over the short term, such as a particular game or even lifetime there is no such guarantee.  That is the nature of risk.

These are really good life lessons.  I learned probability from Monopoly before I knew about it in school.   We practiced simple math.  Got a good short course in negotiations and a chance to observe human nature in wealth and poverty.  

The world view we got from Monopoly was that this is the way life was.   We had early free enterprise, followed by consolidation and then Monopoly and bankruptcy for all but one big winner.   Although that last part was never achieved in our games, which was another lesson.   We always made deals (not permitted by the official rules) to help each other save face.   We also noticed that the bankers tended to have more ready cash than their property holdings seemed to justify.

The games usually ended when it became clear enough who was winning and everybody got bored, or else somebody got mad enough to upset the board or end the game abruptly.   We had several sets of brothers who played with us.  Inevitably one or more would resort to petty violence in response setbacks in the market, thereby ending the game.    I guess it was like real life.

Clearly, the game persuades us that some behaviors are useful and others not.   I don’t think Parker Brothers had support for Capitalism in mind when they started to sell the game in the 1930s.  In fact, I read that the precursor to Monopoly was invented by a socialist who wanted to show the pernicious nature of private ownership.   It just goes to show the law of unintended consequences that it taught generation of American kids about the virtues, if risky ones, of the free market. The mistake that Monopoly teaches is that the free market is a zero sum game, with winners in proportion to losers.  In fact, the free exchanges in a market economy increases general wealth, although not in equal measure.  I don't think we can blame Monopoly, but this zero sum mentality is the leading cause of misunderstanding of the market.  Of course, games need winners and losers.  They are only games after all.  And one reason we like games is that, unlike life, they provide definitive results, but we would not like those kinds of results in real life.

Anyway, kids don’t play Monopoly like we did.  They have other options.   

April 01, 2009

Water Finds Its Level

Water Finds its level 

Our Foreign Service evaluation period ends this month and it is time again for all of us to list our myriad achievements in a couple pages of dense prose.  I hate that.  Coming from my conservative Midwestern background where bragging was discouraged and ridiculed, I am at a significant disadvantage vis-à-vis those who consider pushing oneself forward a pleasure.  I have always hated hustlers and hustling.  But there is the time for those things. 

I have gotten better at it and developed methods and rationalizations that help me through.   My best method is to imagine I am writing about someone else.   In my job, I often have to “sell” ideas.   I make the self-promotion exercise just another job like that.  I have never lied or even exaggerated in any of my assessments, but it is amazing how different achievements can seem when put in context or surrounded by the right words and phrases.  And I guess I have done all right in the promotion game, despite all the gnashing of teeth. 

Statue of chess players in John Marshall Park on March 31, 2009

If you stayed in the Foreign Service for 200 years, things would even out and you would probably end up more-or-less where you deserve, but in the course of a 20 year career there can be lots of random events that affect your success.   I know very capable colleagues who suffered some kind of career downdraft through little or no fault of their own and forever stalled at mid-level and there are a happy few who have risen to very high ranks on the strength of some random occurrence or lucky break. Of course, some people can't get ahead no matter what breaks they get, but chance matters too.

Good or bad luck can affect whole generations, so you have to compare people to their peers.  During the middle 1990s, it was very hard even for good people to get promoted because they were cutting the FS.  It is easier now when we are expanding hiring.  I read in a biography of Eisenhower that he despaired of ever getting another promotion back in the late 1930s.  But it worked out for him.  His became "the class the stars fell on" (the class of 1915 produced 59 generals out of 164 graduates, not bad) when WWII expanded the army. Eisenhower, Bradley, Marshall, Nimitz, Halsey etc were able men and they were successful, but had the war come five years later we would have had a whole different set of five-star leaders.  Colonel Eisenhower might have found himself called out of retirement to run a training program, but the crusade in Europe would have had a different champion.  "There is a tide in the affairs of men ..." 

Below is a statue of Gen John Pershing, General of the Armies, the only man to attain that rank during his own lifetime.   Later Congress passed a law stipulating that no American ever had or could outrank George Washington.

General Pershing monument in Washington

Losers blame their circumstances, and they are right just enough to keep the idea plausible. With the caveat of comparison mentioned above, promotions are correlated to actual merit, but certainly not perfectly correlated.  There is a statistical quality to them, which is not always fair or right, but in the long term and for the most part you can understand what happened.    

Some people have opportunities dropped in their laps; others have to work hard to find them.  You do need opportunity to shine, but what you do with it makes all the difference.  The FS is a very good laboratory for achievement because we have such a variety of jobs and we move among them.  Even though we are all similar in background, and the FS test ensures that we are all smart in the academic sense, you can really see the difference people can make in positions.  Posts and positions may suddenly become important and effective just because a new person has come in.  The reverse is also true. 

In my observation, chronic underperformers are those that avoid responsibility and refuse to make consequent decisions.   It has to do with that opportunity thing I mentioned above.  In choosing mediocrity, they cannot be blamed for failure, but they also never have the opportunity to succeed.   In a knowledge organization like the FS, the preferred method to avoid responsibly is to over analyize every situation and then spread risk by involving lots of marginal participants in your decision making.  I don’t think that most of those doing this really understand the implicit choices they are making.  They think they are being prudent and honestly don’t understand why their list of achievements pales next to those of their “crazier” and “less hard working” colleagues.

I have real trouble understanding how I achieved the success that I have enjoyed and I cannot believe that I deserve it.  This doubt is not a malady I suffer alone.  I find that most successful people who are honest and self-aware fear that they are frauds whose mistakes and faults will someday be embarrassingly revealed.  This is a useful attitude.  It keeps us more humble and stimulates a desire for continuous correction and improvement. I pity the fools who believe they have no serious faults left to correct.  But self-doubt can result in the risk-avoiding mediocrity I mention above and you have to be careful not to be overly influenced humility and self-doubt at evaluation time.  Evaluations are comparisons.  In this universe of imperfect people, where do you stand in relation to others? Nobody is perfect and the ostensible quest for perfection is another way people avoid responsibly to make choices. 

If we disqualify ourselves based on the faults & fears we know we suffer, all we do is allow the more dishonest or self-deceiving people among us to prosper and rule ... and those are not the kinds of people you want running the show. 

It is not only your right, but your proactive duty to ensure that you can make a contribution commensurate with your capacity.  That means we have to engage in what I would call bragging at evaluation time.  Unfortunately, evaluations are like a race run in the fog, where you might have to judge the winners by who is bragging the loudest because the actual finish was unclear.

The arguments we make for ourselves should be honest, but well crafted.  We can share credit and take credit for common efforts at the same time.  It is not a virtue to allow your achievements to be hidden or ignored, since that means that your ability to do more will be curtailed and it is likely that a less competent but more confined guy will take your place.  In my circumstances, getting promoted really doesn’t mean making much more money, since our pay is capped.  It does mean having the opportunity to do more useful and interesting things before they kick me out (we have an up-or-out system). 

Anyway, those are the things I am telling myself as I embark on my creative writing exercise.  

We get to write our own first page on our evaluation forms and tell the promotion boards why we are worthy.   I will imagine that I am writing for somebody else and give that guy the benefit of all doubts.   I have some interesting narratives this year and I suppose I can spin some gold out of that common straw. 

March 28, 2009

Power & Glory

Most people are uncomfortable with the exercise of authority and they usually resent those who do.   Lord Acton’s observation about the corrupting nature of power still applies.  ("Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

Nevertheless, establishing order requires authority and w/o basic order, nothing much gets done.  Power need not be overly coercive and the most effective leaders are those who welcome the participation of other.    I have written on this subject on many occasions.  But sometimes you come to a bottom line where a decision must be made.   In those times, a leader who refuses to make the hard decisions is shirking his duty. 

Statues near Von Steuben monument in Layfayette Park near Whitehouse in Washington DC on March 26, 2009, a rainy day.
  Leaders who refuse to lead are the leading cause of unhappiness in the workplace, IMO.   Worst of all are the guys who won’t lead, but like to boss.  Next worse are the ones who hide among the rules.  Rules apply to most situations and all routine decisions.  You need leadership for those times when they don’t. Leadership requires the exercise of judgment, which will always seem arbitrary to those who disagree.   

I learned an interesting lesson from an exercise in my leadership seminar last year.  Reference this link for details.  I don’t think it was the one intended.   I was chosen as a group leader by a more or less random and unfair procedure.   In the exercise, points were distributed based on rank but were also earned by individual and group effort.  I determined that our group could score lots more points if we cooperated and with my two leadership colleagues, we created a system that distributed the points fairly.  The facilitators were surprised and (I think) a little chagrined that we were scoring so many points w/o dissention.   We soon got dissention, when another group used the rules to seize power, despite the fact that it cost us all points.   The lesson I took was that the essential task of power is to maintain it.   Nasty and Machiavellian as it might seem, the simple fact is that you cannot accomplish your goals (even if your goal is to pass along power to someone else) if you are deposed.  Weak leadership does nobody any good.

I am reading a book Alex gave me for Christmas called Rubicon.  It is about the fall of the Roman Republic.   The author is very talented, but he evidently doesn’t like the Romans.  His description characterizes them almost as an infestation that infected and ultimately destroyed the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean.   Their virtues of perseverance, bravery and patriotism are seen as merely enablers of their cruelty.   A couple months ago I finished a book called Empires of Trust, which left almost the opposite impression.  I have been reading Roman history for a long time.  They are both right.   The Romans established the greatest Empire in history and brought order, a degree of justice & prosperity to the lands of Europe, Africa and Asia that surrounded the Mediterranean and now are thirty-six separate nations.  They were brave, resolute, consequent and practical.  They were also cruel, mendacious, superstitious and capricious.  In other words, they displayed all the usual attributes of power.

Washington DC on March 11, 2009

I admire the Romans, with all their faults.   Our world is very much based on theirs.  Our American constitution embodies many of the lessons of Rome, only better.  I believe in progress and that sometimes we can learn from history.   We learned from the Romans and we can be better than they were because we stand on their shoulders.  The fatal flaw of the Roman organization was their messy succession procedure.  Augustus established the principate (became emperor) through stealth and maintained it with the fiction that he was merely the first among equals.   He is recognized as a political genius and a great man for his achievement and it was probably the only way to pull it off.   But it avoided some of the responsibly of power and made each transition an unpredictable adventure which often involved murder and the exercise of military muscle.

The Romans were hated and justifiably feared because of their power.  They deprived the people of the Mediterranean of political freedom, what we would today call national self-determination.   If you annoyed the Romans, you paid a high price.   But the Roman Empire provided a great deal of liberty, tolerance and personal autonomy.  (Of course all ancient societies were horrible and oppressive by modern standards.   Remember that progress thing.  But compared with the available alternatives, you were probably better off living in the Roman Empire than anyplace else in the world at the time.)

US Capitol Dome on March 22, 2009

Above - Romans perfected the dome and pioneered the use of concrete in buildings.

Most of my ancestors were among the barbarians who destroyed the Empire and I imagine my grandfather many generations removed scratching himself in the Forum trying w/o success to figure out how all that water got to the fountains.  The Empire fell in 476 in the West (although it hung on until 1453 in Constantinople) but the idea of Rome persisted and the whole world is heir to their achievement.  You can see it in architecture from Shanghai to Seattle.  Washington looks a lot like a Roman city.  The Romans were not very original, but they were experts at assimilating and developing ideas from a diversity of sources.  They developed what became our concepts of rule of law, citizenship, the concept of a republic and separation of powers, so we Americans are especially indebted to them.   Our Founding Fathers knew what we sometimes forget.   

March 19, 2009

Learning Organizations

The U.S. Marines are a learning organization.   During the year I was lucky enough to serve with them in Iraq, I was continually amazed at how fast information spread among them.   Then it would mutate, improve and become better adapted to the situation at hand.   The USMC skill and alacrity as a learning organizing was a necessary and key component of our success in Anbar province in 2006-8.   They adapted to changing circumstances and overcame obstacles.    

Marines talking to tribal leaders in Al Anbar province

Like all greatness, the USMC success is based on apparent contradiction. The Marines manage simultaneously to be hierarchical and egalitarian.   The also have very strict rules and at the same time very flexible execution.  The commander’s intent is very important even if it turns out that the specific instructions did not survive first contact.  Finally, virtually all Marines are intensely interested in helping other Marines, although this is sometimes masked by their tough exteriors.  Officers take responsibility and interest in their men.   They spend a lot of time mixing and talking with them.   This is one of the things that make them a learning organization.   A lot of information passes informally.  The leader, in one sense, provided the organizational connective tissue. Anyway, scholars have studied Marine leadership for literally centuries and I know there is a lot more, but those are the lessons I took and the ones I think apply generally.

The Marine organization I saw in action in Iraq contradicts many of the stereotypes we hear about them.  I realize, however,  that if I say that I want my organization to be more like the Marines, most people will conjure up an image far different from the one I envision.   So let me fall back on some other ideas that have stood the test of time and are similar but civilian.  

I read In Search of Excellence when I started my MBA in Minneapolis in 1983.  It is hard to recall now what a ray of hope that book was for me and my classmates.  We were coming off the terrible end of the 1970s and had recently suffered double digit unemployment, double digit inflation and mortgage interest rates that reached 20%.  Pundits told us that America could not longer compete in the world.  We were doomed to become the hinterland for the Japanese juggernaut.   Our business models were defunct, they told us, and we better get used to being second rate, or at best a clumsy dysfunctional giant.  This wasn’t how it turned out, but the future didn’t seem very promising when the book came out in 1982. 

In Search of Excellence came along and told us about American companies doing excellent things and succeeding and it told us how.  In some ways the ideas were revolutionary, but in most ways they represented the traditional American adaptively. It was our American wisdom encapsulated.  This is one reason In Search of Excellence became one of the best selling business books of all time and why it remains in the core of classics on management and organization.  

The book identifies eight characteristics of excellent organizations.

  1. A bias for action, active decision making - 'getting on with it'.
  2. Close to the customer - learning from the people served by the business.
  3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship - fostering innovation and nurturing 'champions'.
  4. Productivity through people- treating rank and file employees as a source of quality.
  5. Hands-on, value-driven - management philosophy that guides everyday practice - management showing its commitment.
  6. Stick to the knitting - stay with the business that you know.
  7. Simple form, lean staff - some of the best companies have minimal HQ staff.
  8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties - autonomy in shop-floor activities plus centralized values. 

 Burgers of Calis in Hirschhorn garden on March 18, 2008

We can dress them up in terms more appropriate to 2009, but I think, precisely because they were distillations of successful practices, they still form the core of what a good organization should be like.   The only one I would explain is # 6.  It sounds less adaptive than it is.  The authors did not mean and I don’t think we want to stay with what you are doing now.   They were simply admonishing leaders not to just jump into the latest fads or spread themselves too thin with disjointed priorities.   They wrote the book at the tail end of the great merger mania, when giant conglomerates were making it difficult to identify core values or core competencies.  

I think the longer and updated version would be to branch out from core competencies rather than being distracted by every new thing that comes along.  I also think this should be modified with a little more systems thinking, but overall it stands.

March 03, 2009

Evolution not Intelligent Design

I give up.   For many years I have been looking for a grand unified theory of persuasion or at least of public affairs.  I have read hundreds of books about the subject and thousands of articles.   I have listened carefully to skilled practitioners and tried a lot of things out for myself.  I have achieved success, suffered failure and tried to apply the lessons of each.  I have looked for the pattern; inferred the pattern and imposed a pattern where none really existed.  But the long search has reached a dead end ... and an insight. (The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.)

Below is the Library of Congress.  There are several other buildings which together contain the accumulated knowledge of humanity.  All you have to do is look for it.

Library of Congress on February 27, 2009

I could not find a grand unified theory of persuasion and public affairs because none exists.   I have to be content with tactical success and experimentation.   The best strategy is to follow up and double down where things work and abandon failure as quickly and cleanly as possible. 

An organization that can do this is not omniscient; it is robust and opportunistic.  In an uncertain world, we are always playing the probabilities.  It is a world where the best plan might fail and the worst succeed, but in the course of repeated tries and many actions, the better ones make progress. It is an evolutionary system that unfolds through iterations; the truth is revealed conditionally and gradually.  It cannot be choreographed in advance.

I remain a believer in truth and in seeking truth.  It is just that I do not believe that we humans have the capacity to find the big truths.  Actually, I am not giving up the search, but I am switching methods. Repeated inquiry and intelligent analysis of both process and results will bring us to an approximation of practical truth, wrong in many details but useful for decision making in the situations for which it was developed.   

You don’t need to know the whole truth to know what to do.  We have to walk the line between recklessness and paralysis.  At some point we know enough to jump.  That point comes when we estimate the probabilities are good enough – not perfect, but good enough - when the probable outcome of doing something is better than waiting.   We will be wrong a lot.  We need to be robust because omniscience, or even understanding most things, is not an option available to mortal man.  We are always wrong to some extent.

“Often wrong, but never in doubt.”

That is how they described MBAs when I was at the University of Minnesota B-school. It was meant pejoratively, but it is not a bad strategy.   If you more likely to be right than wrong and the rewards of success are significant while the cost of failure is not catastrophic, the smart decision is just do it.  If it works, do it again and improve it.  If it doesn’t work, figure out why and do something better. 

Just because you don’t have a detailed plan doesn’t mean you don’t have a plan. Often the best plan is the structure of the choice architecture in the organization itself.  Giving people a broad goal in an organization structured to take advantage of opportunity and can learn from experience is the best plan you can have in a changing world.  After it works, you can take credit for prescience if taking credit is important to you. 

Clean stream in New Hampshire fall 2003

Ask the guy in the kayak about his precise plan before he hits the white water around the bend.   It is better to know you can adapt to what will come than to develop a bogus detailed strategy for everything that could be on the way.  

February 28, 2009

Facebook 2

I am still trying to understand the new communication technologies.  As I look back and forward, I come again to the constant in all communication.  Technologies don’t talk.  All communication happens between humans and humans.  

It is like the old philosophical conundrum: If a tree falls in the wood and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?  The conundrum is easily solved if you define what you mean by sound.  It certainly creates vibration.  So it makes a sound in that sense.  But these vibrations only become meaningful as sound when somebody’s brain interprets it. 

When you add the human factor, you see that we are dealing with methods, not techie magic.   The technologies are just facilitators.

Anyway, I noticed a couple of good articles to supplement my understanding expressed in my first Facebook posting. The Economist had a short but good article called Primates on Facebook that said some of the same things as my post re the limited of human cognition.  I didn’t know the source, but the limit of human interaction is called a Dunbar number, after an anthropologist who postulated that human face to face interaction can only go to around 150.  Somebody wrote a blog post about that.  It is more interesting than its title Extending Dunbar's Number with the social web suggests. 

My own experience - that Internet steals memory - is evidently a common occurrence.  There was an interesting blog entry called Will Facebook 'infantilize' the human mind? 

But there is good news for geezers as I read in Older People on the Internet.  It makes sense.  Old people have time on their hands, are unenthusiastic about strenuous exercise and often no place to go, so they already have the prime characteristics of Internet nerds.  Large sections of the web will soon be big electronic geriatric wards.  That brave old geezer world will be well developed just about the time I get there, how convenient. I also got my Twitter account.  I like Twitter less, but I have been studying up on it.  Pew Research has a good summary of Twiterati demographics and habits.

February 26, 2009


Mobile devices, such as cell phones, notebook computers and even hand-held games, may soon be the way most people get their news and information and become their primary way of accessing the Internet.    We have to be there too.  Some places may bypass conventional computers altogether (much like cellular technology bypassed land-lines), especially as more and more features are added to mobile devices.   Cell phones now come bundled with still and/or video cameras, global positioning systems and sophisticated computing capabilities.  Mobile devices fundamentally change people’s relationship to information because they are available any time and almost anywhere.   Mobile devices allow individuals to report what they see on the spot, along with pictures and connections.   User created content has essentially made individuals into media.  

US Capitol visitor center hall on February 25, 2009

Above is the hall of the new visitors' center at the Capitol.  It took them years longer and a lot more money.  The guard told me that they had to reinforce all the doors and walls to make them more resilient in case of terrorism.  This extra precaution costs us billions, but you gotta have it.

Experts from private industry traded experience with veteran public diplomacy officers when International Information Programs (IIP) and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) explored innovative and imaginative new ways to leverage mobile technologies for public diplomacy during a conference held at NFATC on February 19.  

It quickly became clear that mobile media, despite all the highfalutin hoopla, is just another part of the new media environment.  Several of the speakers emphasized the necessity of flexibility in the uncertain and protean world of the new media.    The new media is more fluid, fragmented, decentralized and personalized than more traditional media.  This creates challenges and opportunities for public diplomacy as well as for the traditional way we deliver messages at State Department.

Hearing the experts at the conference talk about exciting new communications technologies and even more coming soon, it also became clear that changes in new media environment are coming at an accelerating rate.  We have already seen some of yesterday’s most promising stars become today’s dinosaurs.   There is no reason to think this will be any different tomorrow, so it is silly and to try to pick winners among the new media.  Besides, we don’t have to.  We have an “all of the above” option.  What we have to do is experiment, recognizing that many will fail, but we will learn from the experiments that fail and that even those that succeed will work in unexpected ways requiring flexible responses.   The new media allows us to be flexible and being flexible means that we don’t choose “the best.”   Instead we try all appropriate methods, choosing the mix of media tools we think will work best for particular tasks.   We must use technology but not get beguiled by it, remembering that communication is the destination and the technology merely the vehicle we use to get there.  The mix will usually involve the newest technology used in the latest ways, but it will just as often include simple proven techniques such as personal visits.   Remember, we have the “all of the above” option.  Those are some of the lessons I learned at the conference.

Through all the changes in technologies, Edward R. Murrow’s famous observation remains true, “The really crucial link in the international communication chain is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.”   My colleagues and I at IIP understand that but we also know that we need to use all available and appropriate technologies to get within communication range.

Steps going from Capitol vistor center toward Supreme Court & Library of Congress

I was happy to be able to attend this conference on mobile communications and proud that IIP is looking forward to the future, as demonstrated by its organizing this sort of meeting.  State Department is indeed using a variety of media to carry out its public diplomacy.   My colleagues at IIP are using twitter, Facebook, webchats, webcasts, podcasts, Youtube, digital video, blogs, online gaming and various mobile technologies to complement our more traditional Internet, speakers, outreach and publications.   Colleagues in other parts of State Department are also making innovations that harness the talents of State’s professionals.   It is an exciting time to work in public diplomacy. 

February 25, 2009

The Tao of Leadership

In a classic episode of M*A*S*H, Father Mulcahy grows some sweet corn.  After a summer of hard work and anticipation, he harvests the crop, turns it over to the chow hall cook and everybody looks forward to the hometown taste of fresh roasted corn.  But the cook has removed the corn from the cob and creamed it into the kind of slop he usually dispenses.  Insulted by the complaints, he replies indignantly, “I was just trying to be helpful. Next Fourth of July you can eat it on the cob for all I care. 

Grant statue in from of Capitol in Washington taken on February 25, 2009

Above is General Grant in front of the Capitol.  Grant was an unassuming man.  He could easily pass unnoticed.  They said that the only way you could tell if Grant was around was that things started to happen.   Grant was a great general, but he failed at everything else.  Is it enough to be really good at one thing? 

Leadership can be like that.   Sometimes it takes more time and effort to make a mush than to do the effective thing.   It is usually a good idea to lighten up and consider whether your problems are because of instead of in spite of your best efforts, but often the hardest thing to do is nothing.  Most of us have a kind of piece-work mentality.  We think we earn our money by how much we do.  Leadership often means that we add the most value by what we choose to leave undone.

A leadership technique that seems to work is to “get lost,” just be inaccessible.   I know that this goes against every fiber of the stay-connected zeitgeist, but sometimes you add no value and generally when you add no value in an organization, you are sucking up value by getting in the way.   At times when the problem is best solved by someone else, but you know that others may want to consult or defer to your judgment, the best response is to get lost. Doing nothing, BTW, is a very proactive strategy and is the appropriate one only in some situations.   It doesn’t mean you just sneak off to play golf, although in some cases that works by chance.  There are some places where things progress a lot better when the boss is not around and I am not talking about prescribed non-action here.

Of course, the whole technique presupposes that you have already built an environment of trust and autonomy, so that colleagues and subordinates will not merely cower in fear and indecision until your triumphant return.  And that is the big caveat. You are not allowed to reverse the decision for trivial causes and you can never get angry that it was made w/o you.  If you are prone to the character flaws that lead to these behaviors, you need to stay away from this technique, but recognize that your organization will never work at top performance because you won’t allow it.  And stop complaining about all the work you have to do or about your incompetent subordinates. That is the world you created by making yourself indispensable.   Live with it or change it, but in either case shut up about it.

Charles de GaulleAnd as the great Charles de Gaulle said, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

I liked the “Book of the Tao” since I first discovered it when I was around twenty.  I bought a book at a used book shop for $0.25 called “The Wisdom of China and India.”  It was published in 1943.  They would never publish such a book today, since it lumped together these two great but very disparate cultures and presumed to aggregate the collected wisdom of most of Asia in one volume.  But it was a great book and I still have it.  The binding disintegrated when I gave it to Alex to read last week, but a little duct tape postponed its day of reckoning.

The philosopher Lao Tzu has some sage (really) advice on leadership and since this wisdom has persisted through various iterations and hundreds of generations, maybe there is something to it. For example:

“The Tao abides in non-action, yet nothing is left undone.  If kings and lords observed this, the ten thousand things would develop naturally.”


"Nothing is softer than water, yet nothing can be better at overcoming the hard."


“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

If you translated this wisdom into more modern terms, you would say that this sort of leadership taps into the intelligence and imagination of the people.  It makes them partners.  This is especially valuable when innovations are needed.  (Please refer to my posting re management gurus.) Centralized, directive leadership can almost never identify and develop innovation because whether they mean to or not, they bring the power of the organizing to bear to defend the status quo or permit only incremental and usually ineffective change.  

That is the paradox that when you abide in non-action, you leave nothing undone.  I would refine it a little.   Leadership’s task is to create conditions favorable for progress and innovation, but it does not directly create anything.  To employ my favorite analogy, it is like when I use proper silviculture on my forests.  The thinning, fertilizing, planning etc allow the trees to grow better, but I cannot micromanage wood or leaf production.    BTW - Below is the exchange from M*A*S*H: 

Father Mulcahy: Don't I know it. All week I've been dreaming of getting butter on my cheeks, juice on my shirt, and a niblet wedged between two molars.
[walks up to the table]
Father Mulcahy: Where is the corn?
Cpl. Igor Straminsky: You're looking at it. The mushy stuff.
Father Mulcahy: You... You creamed it!
[on the verge of tears]
Father Mulcahy: You... you ninny!
Cpl. Igor Straminsky: [everybody yells at Igor] I was just trying to be helpful. Next Fourth of July you can eat it on the cob for all I care.

February 21, 2009

Sources of Innovation: Gambling, War and Pornography

Sometimes we don’t like the drivers of innovation, but we like the innovation.   The science of probably and statistics was largely developed to serve gamblers.  They were the ones who really cared about properly figuring the odds and they were the ones who provided real working laboratories where elegant theories could be tested in relation the vagaries of human nature.    We can thank gamblers for our ability to assess risk and make better decisions about the complex interactions in our world.  A good book on this subject is Against the Gods: the Remarkable Story of Risk.

World of Warcraft princess

If we needed gambling to stimulate us to understand our complex civilization, we can thank war for having civilization in the first place.   The organizational structures our ancestors developed to provide protection and – truth be told – to dominate their neighbors were adapted to other tasks.  Causality in human events is always complex, with causes creating effects that become causes in ways that make it impossible to separate.    But throughout history you find a strong correlation between success at war and success in other endeavors of civilization.   This implies that the skill sets are at least overlapping.

World of Warcraft mounted warrior

In our own times, we can point to a variety of technological advances produced as a result of conflicts.  The Internet and the Interstate systems were begun to make our country more resilient in the face of massive attacks.   The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced innovations in emergency medicine, which are already saving lives in trauma centers around the world.     

Even if more total lives are saved because of wartime innovations than were lost in the conflicts themselves, we should be able to produce similar advances absent the destruction, but we don’t seem able to do that.   Maybe we humans need a threat to get off our asses, jettison some of the inertia of old comfortable habits and maybe sweep away the resistance of powerful individuals or interest groups benefiting from the old way of doing things.

The things that drive a lot of innovation in computer technologies are online games and pornography.   These are the applications that demand more and more bandwidth and greater computing speeds.    I don’t really need a very advanced computer for the simple word processing and accounting programs that I run and people like me really don’t push the innovators to imagine the better future.   It is the gamers on the edge that do it.

World of Warcraft screen

My boys play “World of Warcraft” online.   There are something like 12 million (and that number grows every day) players around the world forming an online community.   Few of them stop to think about the significance of what they are doing.   They have created a seamless communication network where participants dispersed throughout the world react in cooperation and in real time to actions conveyed by sophisticated moving images around the world at the speed of light.   What can be done in the “World of Warcraft” today will be done in the worlds of medicine, manufacturing, finance and science.   Today’s gamers (or their parents) are financing the innovation and, more importantly they are managing and testing them every day when they play their games.  Somenare already taking the skills and insights learned in virtual worlds and innovatively applying them to their real world jobs.   The skills that helped them overcome the Lich King serve them well in the struggles with the competition. 

BTW - I think one of the reasons we often do better than would be predicted by looking at our school systems is that much learning - and most innovation - is done outside classrooms and away from the formal teachers. 

The games teach the pluses of planning, the dangers of lost control and the problems of managing staffs or teams. Take a look at this youtube video.   You can google WTF and world of warcraft and south park if you want to see more.

World of Warcraft city

Above is a World of Warcraft city.

Maybe the dweeb playing video games is preparing better for life the nerd doing the homework the teacher exactly as the teacher says.

February 15, 2009

Theoretical Perfect: Enemy of the Practical Good

Please read this linked article first.  All the pictures are taken today in places where I have been running for more than ten years.  I have been observing what changed and what stayed the same during that time.  The picture texts could be read independent of the general text.

I was still thinking re the ivy problem and the general problem of native and invasive species.   Let me stipulate that there are real problems with invasive species.  In fact, I would rate it as one of the most important problems we face, bar none.   The Washington Post has an article today on potential release of Asian oysters into the Chesapeake, which is one of the high risk plays that scare everyone involved.  On the personal side,  I spend many days fighting the Chinese paradise trees that infest parts of my forest land and they seem to be in league with another invasive – the multiflora rose – which makes approaching them painful.   So I know the problem with invasive theoretical and practical.

Below is an ivy covered culvert.  It has been holding the soil since before 1997, when I first saw it.  The ivy slows the storm water and allows it to soak in.  Ivy is low/no maintenance and nothing else would grow as well in this shady and stressful environment.  This human environment will NEVER be like the natural world.  The rain quickly runs off the impervious surfaces and washes away soil and most vegetation...but not ivy. It would be foolish to forgo this option.

Ivy covering a road culvert and holding the soil.

But the whole concept of invasive lies on a continuum.   Horses are not native to North America, at least since their ancestors disappeared here during Pleistocene.   Nature did not place the horse on our continent; the Spaniards and English did the job.   Few people today consider horses an invasive species, but they are.   In fact, wild horses get special legal protection.   Also among the immigrants are honey bees, white clover, cows, sheep, wheat and even earthworms.   It is clear that these species have altered the environment in profound ways;  they made the land more productive and it would be insane to try to eradicate them.   On the other hand, we have chestnut blight, snakeheads, kudzu, wild hogs, Chinese longhorn beetles, emerald ash borers … the list goes on.

Below is an alternative to ivy - concrete.  Storm water rushes down and floods stream beds.  This culvert, BTW, is above the ivy in the picture, so it rushes into the ivy, where it is slowed down and tamed.

Concrete culvert in Vienna Virginia taken on February 15, 2009

Reasonable people disagree about where to draw the line.   Norway maples are the most common street trees in the upper Midwest.   Are they invasive?  Some people think so.  They replaced the American elm, almost eradicated by the invasive Dutch elm disease.  The salmon introduced into the Great Lakes are generally well received.   They replaced the lake trout, wiped out by the invasive lamprey eel.    We cannot dial the history back to the past, and what year would we choose anyway?  Species composition is always changing. 

Below - somebody dumped gravel into this low spot to slow erosion.  They still mow the grass all around.  Maybe ivy would be better than this alternative.

Gravel filled culvert near Gallows Road in Vienna VA taken on February 15, 2009

The problem of invasiveness is really a type of cost/benefit calculation.    My own bias is to prefer native species - actually local species – because they have been around together a long time and have a demonstrated adaption to the nearby environment.   But I do not limit my choices to only local species because I recognize that human activities have changed the environment sometimes rendering the previous adaption less adaptive.   The human changed environment is the new environment.  The old one is only historical.

Below - imagine the force the stormwater will achieve as it rushes down this hill in a concrete culvert wth no plants to slow it down and no possibility of soaking into the ground.

Concrete culvert on steep hill on Redwood Drive in Vienna VA on February 15, 2009

This last part is important.  Every species is adapted to a niche.   But the niche is not the species and the species is not the occupant of the niche.  A species that occupies a very narrow niche is probably on its way to extinction in our rapidly changing world.   One of the definitions of an invasive species is that it can invade several niches and do it well.   This is also an advantage.  

Below is a local stream where most of the water running through the culverts ends up.  The impervious surfaces and the fast water runoff ensures that it floods and erodes.  The rip-rap holds it somewhat, but it requires consistent attention.

Stream bed in Vienna VA on February 15, 2009

Our environmental tool kit should include a variety of solutions, native and not.  While native is often the best choice, a slavish devotion to the environment we happen to have had in 1607 is senseless.    

Below - the neighborhood is in many ways an oak savannah.  The oaks were planted years ago when the houses were built and/or some were left from the original cover. It would be better if the lawn was replaced with some more resilient, non-mowing, vegetation.

Oak savannah in Vienna VA on February 15, 2009

BTW – some of our native species are invasive in other places.   Our native southern pines are planted all over Australia and South America, where they often grow better than they do back here at home.   Some people in Scotland complain that our Sitka spruces and Douglas fir are now the main components of their forests.   The world’s largest redwoods may soon be in New Zealand, where they were introduced 150 years ago.  They grow even better there than they do in California.  I saw some very big redwoods in Portugal and some really majestic sequoias in Geneva. 

Below is a bad introduced species - bamboo.   Bamboo is extremely agressive and hard to eliminate.  People plant it because it provides quick cover, but it takes over real quick.

Bamboo along stream bed in Vienna VA on February 15, 2009

Below is a yard with a ground cover of pakisandra.  I don't know if they are native, but they are not as hardy as ivy and they can be killed by too much foot traffic or even weed wacking.   The advantage is low maintenance and no mowing.  BTW - most lawnmowers make more pollution than a full sized car. 

Pakisandra plant in front yard in Vienna VA in February 15, 2009 

Below is a "good" non-native, a Lebanon cedar.  They get big and live a long time.  I really cannot reliably tell cedars apart unless they have some special color, like some sorts of Atlas cedars.  I planted a deodar cedar near gallows.  The only way I could identify it was from the tag at Home Depot.

Lebanon cedar in Vienna VA on February 15, 2009 

Below is a bad non-native, multiflora rose.  You cannot see them very well in the picture, but they cover the forest floor.  They have pretty flowers, but I hate them for their thorns; those thorns, however, are why they are so common.  The government recommended them as erosion control and as a "living fence."  I can attest to their value as fence barriers.

Multiflora rose in Dunn Loring Park on February 15, 2009

February 13, 2009

Recency and Availability Bias

Two of the most easily observed (in others) but difficult to counter biases are that we over-weight recent events and we rely too much on easily available information.  I thought about this when I saw the results of a recent poll re the best president.  Americans rate Reagan #1, according to Gallup, followed by Kennedy, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and then Washington. 

Graph of presidential greatness

Humans are programmed to take shortcuts when trying to understand situations and some of these patterns go way back.  They work in simple situations with good and timely feedback – i.e. the kinds of situations our Pleistocene ancestors faced on the African plains trying to avoid becoming leopard food – but lead us astray on complex choices where the effects are separated from the causes in time and space – i.e. much of what we deal with in the modern world.  

I think all those presidents were okay, but no matter what you think of the actual merits of that presidential preference, what are the chances that the two best presidents would have been in office within living memory?   You get this same sort of bias when you ask about the greatest people in history in general.  There is a bias toward people of the late 20th Century.   What does this say about people taking the long view? And what does that mean for our practice of persuasion?

Below is the merry-go-round at the Smithsonian.

Smithsonian merry-go-round

I bet Lincoln would have moved up in the standings if the poll had been taken yesterday or right after some kind of television special. 

There are a lot of good books on these sorts of bias, BTW.  Most have some connection to prospect theory.  The easiest to understand book on the subject is called simply Decision Traps.  It is an old (1990) book.  A more recent one that covers some of the same ground is Nudge Nudge is more recent and more readily available, so I suppose it will be given more weight.

BTW (2) a few more of the pernicious rules of thumb include:

Confirmation bias – people search out and remember information that confirms rather than challenges their current beliefs.

Vividness - particularly vivid experiences or images interfere with judgment.

Anchors – people consciously or unconsciously set baselines and then have trouble adjusting.   This is why salesmen and lawyers try to get a big number mentioned up front.   That becomes the anchor from which all adjustments are made.

BTW (3) I think the greatness of presidents should be measured by how crucial they were to the development of our country. 

W/o Washington, there would be no U.S. as we know it, so I would rate him #1.  Lincoln saved the Union and made it what it became, so he is #2.   Other transformative presidents were F. Roosevelt, Reagan and Jackson.  In that order they were great.  

Kennedy was okay but not great, IMO.  T. Roosevelt was a great character, but at time that didn't call for greatness.  Wilson had some great ideas, but he was unable to carry them through.   Jefferson was a great and crucial thinker, but not a great president.  Ditto the father of the Constitution James Madison.   Truman and Eisenhower were very good, but not great. 

February 07, 2009

Learning From the Management Gurus

John Matel with "The Economist" magazine, February 7, 2009 

If I could read only one magazine a week, it would be “The Economist” because it has such a variety of topics written in a style I enjoy. I have subscribed to the Economist since I was in graduate school and it has contributed as much to my education as my grad school experience.  Actually, all education, formal and otherwise, builds what went before.   I was reminded of that today with this Economist article on Fredrick Taylor. 

I met Taylor (figuratively) in grad-school when I studied operations research.   He is the father of “scientific management” and while I think the strict application of his theory is probably a bad thing (Lenin was a Taylor fan), he did start the systematic study of management processes that has done a lot to create the modern prosperity we now enjoy.   Peter Drucker wrote that Taylor was, “the first man in history who did not take work for granted, but looked at it and studied it. His approach to work is still the basic foundation”.    That was worth something.  

Frederick Winslow Taylor, father of scientific management, around 1900I don’t like the practical and complete application of the theories.   Even if you don’t know Taylor, you know his work.  He is the time management guy, the one who set loose all those guys with clipboards and stopwatches to measure workers.   In our scheme, we do not ask the initiative of our men. We do not want any initiative. All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick.  That assumes you don't want innovation or initiative. This was the frightening world of “Modern Times” or “Metropolis” and in the early 20th Century the trends didn’t look good.  Fortunately trends never continue and we got back to a more human and humane system, at least in theory.  Humans don't work like machines and everybody is better off if everybody is thinking.

That's Taylor on the left.

I will let those who care enough read re the other stars of management.  Here are the links:
Max Weber, Richard Rumelt, Warren Buffett,  Richard Pascale, Alfred Sloan, Peter Senge, Laurence Peter, Henry MintzbergPeter DruckerGeert Hofstede, Abraham Maslow, Douglas McGregor, Gary Hamel, Michael Porter,  Dale Carnegie, Igor Ansoff, Warren Bennis, Frank and Lillin Gilbreth C.K. Prahalad. 

Of course every real-world leader needs to develop methods that fit with his own strengths, circumstances and proclivities. The management theorists can inform choices, but they cannot make them for you (anyway many of the gurus are sometimes a bit like Harold Hill in the "Music Man.") I learned a lot from reading the theories and then trying them out in practice.  I read most of Peter Drucker's books and I had several of Tom Peters' books.  In Search of Excellence” had a lot of influence on me because I read that when I was in grad-school and it was one of my first books of that kind.  I must have spent thousands of dollars on leadership/management books. BTW - I also consider the reading of biographies as a type of leadership training.   You learn from the experience of others.

I found Maslow’s hierarchy of needs a very useful construct when I was in Iraq.  As Maslow points out, you can't accomplish much until you meet basic safety and security needs.   All the other things were just not possible out of that sequence.  That insight alone was probably studying him.    I am not saying that we should apply these ideas w/o modification, but they are very useful.   Most of the Marine officers I talked with in Iraq were familiar with Maslow and they got it right too.

“The Economist” reminded me of something I had forgotten.   I read Henry Mintzberg in grad-school, but not since.  But I had internalized something he wrote, and paraphrased it for many years, probably because it fit in well with my personal preferences.   Mintzberg was very different from Taylor’s machine like idea of focusing on task.  The good managers he studied jumped from topic to topic.   According to Mintzberg, good managers thrive "on interruptions and more often than not disposes of items in ten minutes or less. Though he may have 50 projects going, all are delegated.” In a study of British managers at the time, he found that they worked without interruption for more than half an hour only “about once every two days”. He also found that senior managers spent more than three-quarters of their time in oral communication. He concluded, “the job of managing is fundamentally one of processing information, notably by talking and especially by listening.” To be a good manager you have to be a good listener.”

Management is not the same as other sorts of work.  That is why when the guy who seems to be the most serious worker in the place is put in charge, things often go wrong and why self-described hard workers often think their boss isn’t doing anything.    Making connections and understanding the whole becomes more and more important as you get farther along and the value of actual “work” declines.  It becomes more important to know what to do and work through others.

The management gurus tend to put leadership and managment in the same boat.  There are differences.  I think it is easier to study and define management.  In Taylor's world, leadership is only management and even that is essentially surrendered to the system.  In a really well designed scientific management system managers are more like administrators.  Leadership is needed to set new courses and create change.  If you are not going anywhere, you don't need leadership to get you there.

It is almost impossible to describe precisely what a good leader does that makes him/her a good leader, or when you describe it, it sounds trivial.  He just knows what to do.  Things just work better and more smoothly when some people are around.  And of course there are some leaders who are just creators of useless effort.  Life doesn't have to be that hard. Maybe the management gurus can put it in better words than I can.

The lesson I took was that leaders working ostensibly hard behind their desks are not really working very effectively and if things are going wrong, it is more likely BECAUSE of rather than in spite of their best efforts.  Working hard on the wrong thing is worse than doing nothing at all.  Leadership above all means making the right choices.   Besides, as RR said, it is true that hard work never killed anybody, but I figure why take the chance?   Maybe they should waste a little time walking around and talking to the people doing the work, and read “The Economist” every Saturday.         

February 06, 2009

Do Words Count More Than Deeds?

Ford Motors promotional image of Chief Stylist George Walker talking to an Edsel project member. From the personal collection of auto ephemera (over 4,000 pieces spanning 1900-1975) owned by Stude62.Ford Edsel and New Coke are spectacular examples of how even the most sophisticated marketing and biggest bucks cannot sell a product people don’t want.  But we are talking about tangible products in these cases.   Each time you tasted New Coke, you were given another chance to test for yourself.   Everybody who saw or drove an Edsel could make his/her own judgment.   Imagine if you had ONLY the advertisements about these products and/or you had to depend on what others said about them.  Go one further. Imagine that much of what you had almost no opportunity to make independent verifications and that almost everybody involved in explaining to you had a vested interest in misleading you, or at least spinning the facts.  Now you are in the world of public affairs.

Abraham Lincoln famously said that “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”  This sentence is designed with the encouraging part as the punch line, but it not really very encouraging.    Phase it just a little differently.  Some of the people are always fooled.  Some of the people are sometimes not fooled, but all of the people are fooled some of the time.  Mr. Lincoln wisely didn’t speculate about how many people would sometimes not be fooled or the amount of influence they might exert on the benighted majority.

New Coke

We can recognize mass deception epidemics in retrospect.  We know how they turned out so we can see the errors. But what do we learn?  By the time the facts are known, we have moved on to other things and with the wisdom of hindsight people convince themselves that they were not really fooled at all.  As someone who loves ancient history, I can think of widely believed hoaxes that persisted for thousands of years.  But let’s limit ourselves to recent ones that we can all recall w/o too much effort from our own lifetimes.  We had the missile gap, the population bomb, global cooling, nuclear winter, imminent collapse of the global financial system (about once every ten years), WMD, diet coke, breast implants, power lines etc causing cancer, and the biggest of all - communism.  

This last one was interesting to me professionally, since my dislike for communism was the big reason I joined the then USIA.  Until 1989 most experts predicted the continued health and expansion of communism.   In fact, I was in Vienna on the very day the Berlin Wall came down listening to experts tell me that the East German government was fundamentally sound and enjoyed the grudging support of its people.  It was naive, they said, to expect any real change.  By 1995, you almost couldn’t find an expert who didn’t claim to have known that the communism was about to collapse. 

Self-deception is the most effective kind.

Communism didn’t work, plain and simple, and it was horribly oppressive to boot, but for a bankrupt ideology, communism enjoyed a remarkably popular life. At least fifty million people died as a result of communism, making it the biggest killer in history.  You can understand how people living under those ghastly systems attenuated their criticism, hoping to avoid joining those millions already moldering mass graves, but communism was also widely accepted among intelligencia in the free nations, where people with the freedom to speak and inquire should have known better.   Even today pictures of Che Guevara adorn dorm rooms and t-shirts on college campuses.  And they are not usually adjacent to picture of Charles Manson or similarly murderous cult leaders.

You can fool some of the people all of the time and sometimes for many years.

We Americans are a pragmatic people and we have grown up in a country with long traditions of democracy, free flow of information, free media, free markets, free inquiry and a lot of choices in general.  We have trouble understanding how uncommon our happy situation is, both historically and geographically. This gives us an exaggerated confidence that the truth will come out and that it will be accepted by most reasonable people.   But remember in closed countries they sold products a lot worse than Edsels or New Coke and people were content to get them.  They still do.

As pragmatic people, we also believe that what we do makes a difference and we take responsibility for our actions.  We appropriately hold ourselves to higher standards.   But that should not prevent us from making objective comparisons and should not lead to assumptions of moral equivalency with nasty enemies ... or worse.

We suffer from the effects analogous to excellent students from very stringent grading system competing with mediocre or poor students from a lax one for admission to an engineering program.  If administrators consider a B in highly competitive course in advanced calculus less than an A in the everybody-passes basic arithmetic curriculum, you better drive carefully over the bridges designed by their graduates. 

Or if you permit, let me provide another analogy.   The couch potato can easily criticize the players in the Super Bowl, but we all know he could not have leap high enough to catch that pass in the end zone nor kept both his feet in bounds when he came down.

Deeds count more than words only when people have the independent ability to judge, effects are reasonably close to actions in time and space and when feedback is available and reliable.   Otherwise they are like the tree that falls in the wood with nobody around to hear it.    

So, what do we do?  I certainly don’t advocate lowering our high standards or hiding our mistakes, but we should raise our expectations of others & don’t overlook their shortcomings either.  After the President’s SOTU speech, some leaders in countries where democracy is viewed with limited enthusiasm said that they would wait to judge his deeds.  Judge his deeds - great!  That goes both ways.   Let’s see how the couch potatoes do on game day or the wizards of basic arithmetic perform on the practical exam.  AND we always ask the “compared to what?” question.  You don’t win respect by lying down in the face of criticism and the truth will come out only if it has some sturdy and persistent advocates.   

Lincoln statue at Lincoln Memorial taken in July 2008

And as Lincoln understood, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, some of the people will be fooled all of the time.

February 02, 2009

Give a Man a Hammer

Stone wall near Alcott house in Concord Mass 

The world is too complex to be understood directly, so we use simplified mental models to make sense of things.   All of us have habitual models – metaphors – that we fit w/o much thought to the events in our world.    The model/metaphor we use determines what we do.    But none of our models is reality.  They fit more or less well, and to the extent the model is a bad fit, we make bad decisions that follow with perfect logic from our assumptions.

Windows at the old Matuszek's grocery in Milwaukee, Wi

Give a man a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.   The model makes a difference.  The most explicit models we employ are often related to sports.  Think about how different the results can be.    A football model will entail planning by a leader and execution by different people, each with specific specializations (quarterback, linebacker etc) on the field in separate steps with pauses between moves.  Basketball, with its continuous fluid and reactive action, produces a very different model evoke very understanding of the problem.    I often wonder how many of our international misunderstandings result from our football metaphor versus their football/soccer way of simplifying reality.

statue of peddlar in front of Smithsonian taken in January 28, 2009

Explicit models are treacherous enough, but it is the IMPLICIT models – the ones we use w/o thinking – put the biggest hurt on us.  Framing the model is the most important part of decision making, but it is often completely overlooked.    Decision makers often assume models out of habit or inertia and then cannot understand why their perfectly logical choices that flow from their premises do not produce the expected results.     Reality is too complex and confusing.  You have to have a model to simplify it, but make it a good one.

My preferred model is ecological, specifically forestry, and I have worked to refine my understanding of this model and its application.   No model is perfect, but this one is robust because it accounts for interaction of complex factors, properly accounts for the effects of time, anticipates changes in conditions and anticipates random shocks.  The most important insight in this model is that the actions you take will change the expected outcomes and they will never produce proportional results.    Little inputs can create very large results, very large inputs may produce almost nothing and change come in spurts and lumps.   This doesn’t make intuitive sense because we tend to think in terms or physical models where inputs relate directly to outputs.   If I pour eight ounces of water into a cup, I expect to find eight ounces.   In a biological model, eight ounces may result in a gallon of result or nothing at all; or it might produce no visible result for a long time and then make a big jump.  

U.S. Capitol on winter morning taken on January 28, 2009

You also learn that some things take time to work and extra resources cannot rush the process and that there are some things you just cannot have, not matter how much you want them or how good it would be to get them.

Many people think that if we just all agree, we can have all we want.   When it doesn’t work out, they assume there must be some villains standing in the way.  But in the real world, there are many things we cannot have right away – we have to wait – lots of things we cannot have simultaneously and some things we cannot have at an acceptable cost and things we cannot have at all no matter what cost we are willing to pay.   And this happens naturally.  Villains are optional.    And often you don’t get what you think you want, but what you get is better.  Sustained interaction with the natural world teaches these lessons.   That is why forestry is a good model.  But it takes time to learn. 

January 24, 2009

Financial Diversity, Risk, Profit & Loss

Reflections on a riverbank in forest out side Frankfurt in Germany taken on September 28, 2009 

A guy on the radio today was complaining that he lost all his money invested with Burnie Madoff.  He made his money with many years of hard work in the NY garment industry and Madoff took it all, according to the report  I know we are all supposed to feel sympathy or even outrage.   He was the victim of a crook you could understand how he lost SOME of his money. But this guy claimed to have a couple million dollars invested, all of it with Madoff.   When you money like that, you have the capacity to diversity.   If you diversify you don’t lose ALL your money.  Although what the newly poor old guy describes might be a personal tragedy for him and from his point of view, it is not a random outcome and it was not beyond his control.   

You have to ask yourself why somebody might have so much invested in one place, why they insisted on putting all their eggs into one basket.   The answer is never flattering.    The least offensive is that the basket keeper is just ignorant.   More likely are elements of sloth, greed & a flexible definition of honesty. 

This is certainly not the first time people have been caught up in this sort of scheme and it won’t be the last.   Many financial histories begin with the South Sea Bubble or the Dutch tulip mania, which was the first recorded speculative bubble way back in 1637.  The patterns are clear.   Somebody offers the prospect of unusually high returns with minimal risk doing something that is difficult to understand.   They often are also exclusive and have the slight odor of something skating near the edge of the regulations.   That is ostensibly why they can make the big bucks.  Ironically, they also sell the schemes by implying that the investment is safe because it will be protected by regulators.  The regulations provide a kind of cover that encourages credulous investors to take greater risk.  They  think they are clever, cleverer than the average people with their pedestrian investments. 

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.   There is nothing wrong with making risky investments.   Risk is how you make high returns, but you need to understand what risk means.   Risk means that you are trading a greater chance of losing part or all your investment in return for the chance of making more money.    You can manage risk by diversifying your investments.   A good number of investments that are individually very risky can be low risk when they are put together.   You might lose all your money in one investment, but you gain enough on others to make up for it. Nobody can predict the future, so the only way to protect yourself is to spread your assets.   

You can still lose big money, as almost everybody has in the recent hard times, but you won’t get wiped out.  You get problems when you try to identify the ONE winning thing. Never do that. This is Investment 101.

If you went back in time before the crashes and told investors in Madoff/Enron/Keating/etc that they should be getting money out of these things and spreading their risk, most would have turned you down.   They were making the big bucks and wanted to keep on making them. How stupid would you have to be to take money out of such winning investments? 

A couple years ago, I watched a program about a bunch of the victims of Charles Keating.  I saw one angry old man who actually tried to spit on Keating. I think it was the same guy who sat with his son for an interview. His son was a financial planner and he asked why his father didn’t ask for advice before sinking all his savings into this investment.  The old man answered honestly, “Because I knew you would tell me not to do it.” He wanted the returns and figured he could get it risk free.  A fool and his money ...

Anyone who promises very high returns w/o risk, is lying and/or doing something dishonest and anybody who still chooses to invest is stupid or dishonest or both.   With the freedom to choose comes the responsibly to choose responsibly.  

It is too bad that the old guy on NPR Radio will have to find a job at Wal-Mart or Seven-Eleven, but according to what he said himself, he gradually liquated all his other investments so that all his money was left with Madoff.  You don’t do that even when investing with someone who is perfectly honest because shit happens.  I guess some people have to learn that for themselves and something we have to learn as a society every couple of years.

January 12, 2009

Great Books ... At Least Useful Ones

Below are CJ and the boys near Mt Washington in NH in 2003.

Alex, Espen and Chrissy at the foot of Mt Washington in NH in fall of 2003 

I found this while going through some old emails.  I wrote this to Mariza when she was off to college.  My “great books” for her first year are a little idiosyncratic.  Some books are influential because of the things you are going through in your life when you read them.   When you reread the book, you realize that it is important to you because of what you read into it. 

You have to interact with ideas.   Nobody can be right all the time and I have never come across a book that is good through to the very end.  The authors that influenced me gave me good starts, but none of them lived in my circumstances and I had to modify them accordingly.    That gives me an ideal escape clause.  When I recommend books, I assume that you will interact with the ideas.  Some will be useful; others not.  And even best author or philosopher will say at least a few really stupid things and sometimes a fool can have a useful insight (even if he doesn’t recognize it himself.)

Anyway, I left the note as it was in 2003.  I would make a few changes and additions if I wrote it today.   I personally find it interesting because I can remember some of the things I was thinking about and going through when I wrote the note.  For example, in 2003 I was studying pragmatism, so it was more prominent in my thoughts than it would have been before or since.  Everything depends on contexts, times and places.


Now that you are off to your education, I want to share some of the books that have influenced me for the better.  Few of these things were assigned to me in school.   But I think they formed the basis of the education I use today.

“In Search of Excellence” – Formed the basis of my management and leadership style.  Also influenced my view on human relationships in general.   I bought my copy in 1983, when just before I started my MBA at the University of Minnesota.  It just hit the right chord.  I still have the book I bought, with my underlining and notes.  It is amazing how much I internalized those thoughts.  

“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” – This is the “execution” book of my life and provides the “how”.  It helps me know how to act with integrity and purpose when I might not be sure what to do.  I read this book in 1990 and compared the ideal to the best bosses I had known.  (I worked for a guy called Brian Carlson at the time and he was a great example.) I tried to be like them and like the person the book made me want to be.

“Two Cheers for Capitalism” by Irving Kristol – I found this book by chance in the University of Wisconsin library in 1978.  It made clear to me that I believed in the free market. It set the dominos in motion that sent me to business school with vigor and enthusiasm and then into the Foreign Service to fight world Communism.  On a related item is “The Communist Manifesto” and excerpts from “Capital”.   One of my leftist professors made me read them in 1977.  It had the opposite result from the one I think he wanted to achieve.  I found them to be such unmitigated crap that I was permanently soured on socialism. 

“The Bible”, especially Mathew, St. Paul and Ecclesiastes – I am not strongly religious, but the Bible provides the foundation of faith that I need in my life.  It is the essence of things hoped for; the evidence of things unseen.   I have never read the entire Bible, but have read several times the parts above and heard it in church more times than I can remember.  I am not sure how Ecclesiastes got into the Bible, since it seems a little cynical and world wise, but I like it.  It is a good antidote to things like Amos. 

“The Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides.  Thucydides was my favorite historian when I was an undergraduate.  I read his work in English and part in the original Greek.  It is the classic tragic view of history and one I regrettably share.  His account of the Syracuse campaign actually has all the aspects of tragedy in the technical sense and the Melian dialogue is a classic of power politics.  I would add Polybius and Tacitus and everyone should be familiar with the Iliad and Odyssey.    Although I have long since forgotten the particulars, I recall the sweep.   As for classic philosophy, I can't recommend Plato or his ilk, except the “Apology of Socrates” which is short and well worth reading.  It was the first work I read in Greek.

“Decision Traps” - In this book I learned about how decisions are made in the real world and how to factor inevitable error into my own decisions.  I learned a little humility and at least one valuable technique for learning from experience:  make specific written predictions; put them aside; later analyze them in the light of how event transpired in fact and improve the decision making process.   I read this book for the first time in 1990.   I would add another book to this one as an influence in the same direction, “Against the Gods”, which I read first in 1997.  As I write this (April 19, 2003) I am reading another book, “The Blank Slate” which seems to be supplemental to many of the things I learned in “Decision Traps.” 

Pragmatism – Various things by and about people like William James, Charles Pierce and John Dewey, especially “the Metaphysical Club” This is the most recent wrinkle in my ideological skin.  I find many pragmatic ideas very useful, which is itself pragmatic.  I especially like the idea of the evolution of ideas and the concept that ideas are creations in a human context.  I found many of these ideas embedded in concepts I got from other places, such as the decision traps complex or the “Seven Habits”.   I will also lump into this category Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance”.  It is not pragmatism, but James et al read it.  It influenced them.  

Biography – this became my favorite form of literature in the middle 1990s.  I guess it comes with age.  I can't cite a particular book, but in general, seeing history though the lives of great people has been instructive.   It shows how much can hang on an individual decision and how fast failure can turn to glorious success or the reverse.  The biographies that stand out in my memory are: Truman, Eisenhower, Robert E. Lee, Ben Franklin, and the joint biography “Founding Brothers”, which is interesting because it shows how individual human flaws can actually enhance the performance of a group.  It is sort of a portfolio theory of human events.

Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu – I loved these guys when I was an undergraduate.  I always like to try to act logically.  Taoism provides the non-logical basis on which a logical edifice can be built.  In the same vein, I would cite “Emotional Intelligence”, which I read in 1997.  Logic can provide the “how” (that I got from the Seven Habits), but preference in based on emotion.  Emotion can never be fully suppressed and we should not try to do so. 

Declaration of Independence, Constitution Preamble, Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Four Freedoms (FDR).  America’s contribution to world literature is in the language of freedom.  These are some of the best.   

Anyway, these are a good start.  You will find a lot more.  Never stop looking. 

January 03, 2009

Public Diplomacy & New Technologies

Back story

US Capitol just after dawn on January 2, 2009

I went to see the new James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.  It is not as good, IMO, as the old Bond movies because Bond has lost his edge, or more correctly, the rest of us have caught up.  In one scene, Bond calls back to his HQ for a name check.   After a couple seconds, the super spy commuter comes up with a picture of the miscreant.   Very impressive, but you or I could come up with the same result on Google Images in around 0.9 seconds.   Bond would have been better off just using his I-Phone himself.  This is the new world of communications. 

Web 2.0/PD 2.0

Initial use of the web for public diplomacy and strategic communications involved online versions of familiar delivery methods, such as magazines, radio and television.  Despite vast differences among them, all these shared the paradigm of one-way communications, where a set message was delivered to a passive audience in a one speaker to many recipients model.  It ignored the web’s special capacity for interaction.  Web 2.0 refers to the way the web has changed the nature of communications, making it interactive, more fluid and less centrally organized. Last year, Internet passed newspapers as a source of news in the U.S.  For young people Internet is beginning to rival television. [1]

This new world can make many people in governments or powerful institutions uncomfortable, since it signals a diminution of their power over information and a dilution of their messages.  

We tend to focus on the instant communication aspect of the Internet, but the sinews of its influence are its capacity to find, sort and distribute information.  Powerful search engines give individuals the power enjoyed only by world leaders few decades ago and before that time by nobody at all.  Governments have lost what monopolies they once enjoyed and are now sometimes not even the most prominent voices.  Controlling information is no longer possible.  On the other hand, there is a greater opportunity for engagement to harness the power of the nation and the wisdom of the crowds to produce better and more robust products.   There is no option of ignoring the development.  Internet users demand a degree of interactivity and accept a measure of ambiguity unpredicted a decade ago.   These trends will accelerate as the first generation of digital natives (i.e. kids who don’t remember a world w/o Internet) has reached adulthood.   This is the new world of communications.  Whether we are ready or not, the future has already arrived. 

Interactivity and interrelations

The two concepts to keep in mind are interactivity and interrelatedness.   The first concept is more obvious but the second is more pervasive.   Internet users ostensibly love the possibility of interactivity, but most don’t use it to an extent commensurate with their stated preferences. On any blog, there are dozens, hundreds or thousands of “lurkers” for every active participant.  On the other hand, interrelatedness represents the fundamental power of the Internet and its search engines.  It is the interrelatedness – the unexpected relationships – that makes the Internet such a wonderful and terrible place to do public affairs.

Some say the web provides a venue for the best and the brightest to share ideas w/o the constraints of status or station; others contend it is a place where peculiar people congregate to accrete one dumb notion on top of another.  Both points of view are correct.  The medium of free and often anonymous exchange produces the best and the worst as it emphasizes people on the long tails of the normal distribution.
Mass customization

The ubiquity and interactive aspects of Web 2.0 offer public diplomacy the possibility of direct engagement with thousands of individuals on a global scale.  We can bypass the state run media and the various despotic gatekeepers that have long hounded the quest for truth & knowledge.  In the exchange, however, we get a world of constant change, requiring flexibility and creativity, where you have to earn attention again and again every day.  The interactivity means just what the word says.   When we are trying to influence others, we need to open the possibility of being influenced by them. In a free marketplace of ideas, this would be all to the good.  It would produce a synergy greater than the sum of the parts.  The caveat is that this marketplace of ideas is not as free and open as it would appear.

Pew research graph re Muslim attitudes toward 9/11Our own presence in the mix is the first sign of a constrained freedom.  Although our opponents disagree, our activities are generally benign and broadly truthful.  The USG is constrained to tell the truth by its own rules as well as the continual monitoring by our own free media, interests groups and political leaders in opposition.  For the most part, we are probably too timid in the defense of our positions.   Not so our adversaries.  Most of them are heavy handed and incompetent peddlers of web influence, but there are so many out there that some get it right sometimes and others get it right a lot.  When it works for them, their campaign is based on plausible lies, ones that play to stereotypes and prejudice, and often based on caricatures and exaggerations of our own real and verifiable mistakes and missteps.  In a world where significant numbers of people doubt that there was ever a moon landing and where in communities where majorities don’t think Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, conspiracy theories go a long way.  And the U.S. is probably the single biggest victim of conspiracy theories.  In a world often driven by dispersed impersonal forces, people look for someone to blame.   The U.S. is always there for that purpose.

Countering conspiracy theories with facts and information is futile.   Most conspiracy theories have a built in defense against such quaint ideas as truth or fact.   They are, after all based on “hidden,” “denied,” “secret,” or “occult” information.  True believers in conspiracies derive significant personal status and feelings of self worth from the idea that they know things overlooked by or kept from the masses of people.  It is a true Gnosticism.  As they see it, any counter arguments are merely examples of clever attempts to discredit them.  We have to recognize that some people are incurable conspiracy theory believers.  Others are susceptible to the contagion, but can be cured, but through relationships, not information alone.  A trusted and credible source of the information is what makes the difference.  Web 2.0 provides the opportunity to create such relationships.

In a New World Where Nobody is Well-Loved

Pew research graph showing declining support for bin Laden among Muslim populationsWe also need to recognize that the constant vetting and finding of flaws, even when done honestly, will create a permanent state of dissatisfaction among large numbers of people.  This is what happens when campaigns go negative and it is just easier to go negative than to defend a positive position.  The U.S., as the most ubiquitous presence in the history of the world, will naturally come under the most scrutiny, fair and foul, but it is a general trend that affects everybody.  The good new in this is that it applies to our adversaries as well as to ourselves.  Al Qaeda’s popularity has also plummeted in recent years among Muslims, for example. [2]

Insiders & Outsiders

Internet 2.0 will strengthen “tribes” as people can go online to find others with whom they identify even across great geographical distances.  (Of course, the tribes I am not talking about are not kinship of linage, but kinship of ideas.)  This may lead to greater trust within groups, as they become more uniform and homogeneous, but also lead to a general decline in tolerance overall, since most people will be out-groups to any particular in groups.   Early hopes that Internet would weave the world together in a kind of cyber age of Aquarius have been dashed against the reality of self-selection and segregation.   In a mass information market, differing viewpoints must be tolerated, not so in the case of core groups of believers autoerotically communicating among themselves on the Internet. Where websites and blogs are most developed, disagreements have become sharper and more venomous.   However, the impersonal/personalization of web interactions allows people with very divergent views to coexist and performs mutually beneficial transactions that would be impossible in a face-to-face world.   General “approval ratings” have already become more transactional and unstable, making it even more important to discount what people tell opinion pollsters and watch what they do and get an idea of their true beliefs by their revealed preferences.

Public diplomacy and the marketing mix

The analogy of public diplomacy with marketing is far from perfect, but it provides some useful insights.  When marketing a product or service, you have to understand which communications techniques are appropriate.  Those useful for selling Coca-Cola are often not valuable for selling passenger jets or legal services.  The same goes for public diplomacy.   Our business is more analogous to selling high end legal services than consumer products.  This informs and constrains our choices.

Public diplomacy involves communicating complicated concepts to people who come from a variety of backgrounds and the U.S. operates in a truly global environment.  It involves long term relationship and trust building.   Messages are more problematic.  Some of our world audiences will react in sometimes violently different ways to the same subject.   Imagine the discussion of U.S. attitudes toward same sex marriage at venues in Amsterdam and Jeddah.  Aspects of the discussion popular in one venue would be odious in the other.  In this interconnected world, messages cannot be neatly targeted to a discrete audience.   Even more challenging is that the more extreme members of each audience will seize on the aspects they find most objectionable rather than look for areas of compatibility.   This has long been a problem, but web 2.0 exacerbates it, since one blogger in an audience of hundreds can characterize a discussion for thousands of his compatriots back home.   

In other words, web 2.0 has as much or more capacity to puncture and disassemble public diplomacy messages as it does to deliver them.   The shorter the attention spans media, the more likely this is to be the case.   Twitter with its 140 character limit is a good example.   We have used Twitter successfully to send short messages and a give a “heads up” about bigger things, but it doesn’t easily lend itself to any proactive public affairs task beyond notices and reporting the equivalent of scores or stock averages.  One the other hand, 140 characters is plenty of space for a slogan or attack.  

BTW – the last two sentences of the paragraph above had 327 characters counting spaces.   These two directly above are 140 characters - exactly the right size for a tweet. Good luck with deep explanations.

So what do we do?

We look beyond or through the technology to our purpose.  You cannot answer the how question until you have address they why question.  Communication and relationship building is our goal.  Rather than be beguiled or intimidated by technology, we simply need to keep our focus on the goal and use whatever technological tools are most appropriate.  But we do need to acknowledge that changing technologies have changed the game.

Common themes not unified messages

There is much talk in public affairs about having a unified message.  The new technologies, with all the links and leaks they entail in the information net, mean we can no longer have one unified centrally crafted message.  We can have themes and goals that are interpreted and alerted by the individuals on the ground and closest to the challenges.   We will, however, need to tolerate significant local variations on the themes and welcome the ambiguity of message delivery.

Delivering variations on the themes is much more labor intensive than cranking out a single message because rather than one voice speaking to millions (on the model of the national television program) we will have many voices speaking to thousands or maybe even to hundreds and not only varying the theme to suit particular audiences, but also responding to them and quickly responsive to changes in the environment.  It is important that the theme be consistent but the delivery is protean.  It requires more of a robust process than a comprehensive plan.

Set the Proper Goals for Each Situation

There are many degrees of distinction between active opposition and enthusiastic support.   Americans are particularly afflicted by the desire to be loved in the world, but all that is often required is compliance or even indifference.  Although outright opposition constrains our policy options, America’s image in the world has no discernible impact on the sale of U.S. goods or the acceptance of U.S. cultural products.  Much of the sound and fury of anti-American prejudice signifies nothing or not very much.  The fragmentation of media on the web means that those who dislike us will always have an outlet for their vitriol and they will probably be among those yelping the loudest.  The majority may not have a strong opinion on a particular issue.  They may voice support for our opponents, but take no steps to provide anything practical. 

Military action, which by its very nature is coercive, will almost never be popular and any exercise of power, which inevitably means choosing among priorities, will annoy somebody.  Since you usually get less credit for the good things you do than blame for the bad, any use of power will probably create more perceived losers than winners.  (The world’s superpower is always on the hot seat.  President Clinton gets blamed for not sending troops to Rwanda; President Bush is excoriated for sending troops to Iraq.)  Lack of practical support for extremism and neutrality or even indifference toward our policies among the mass of a country’s people may be sufficient to accomplish our purposes.  Often neutralizing or discrediting opposition will be the most appropriate tact, and Internet is well suited to this task.  We should consider this on a case-by-case basis, rather than compromise practical goals by pursuing the chimera of seeking full throated outright approval.   

All of the above

Using technology to communicate will be an all of the above proposition, with a cocktail of technologies usually more appropriate than reliance on any one.  We will never find the Holy Grail or silver bullet of communications technology and we will never again have anything comparable to the nationwide television network where everybody is watching at the same time.   The ability to reach the whole nation was a historical anomaly.   Throughout most of history and in the future, the communication environment was and will be fractured.  It is only because we all grew up in that unusually homogeneous media environment that we think of it as normal in any way.  

The right tools

We cannot prescribe the particular technological tools for any public affairs task until we have assessed the task and the environment.   What we should be looking for is synergy among the tools.  For example, a live speaker is very compelling but not particularly memorable, while an internet page has the built in memory (you can refer back to it) but is unlikely to be compelling.  Twitter can announce the availability of some piece of information or some event, but it cannot explain the nuances.   An event might be very informative, but nobody comes unless they can be told and reminded.   Obviously a combination of technologies works best, changing them to adapt to circumstances.   BTW – technology is not only high tech or electronic.   A technology is merely a way of doing something.  A personal meeting is a kind of technology.   Sometime the thousands year old technology is the way to go.

We seek the right MIX of technologies, not the right ONE technology.  There is no silver bullet or Holy Grail of communications.  It is easy to be beguiled by the new or the latest big thing, but technology is not communication and the medium is not the message.  It is only the method. 


1. Internet Overtakes Newspapers as News Source, Pew Research (
2.  Global Public Opinion in the Bush Years (2001-2008)    (

Other References

The Future of the Internet III, Pew Research (

Other information is based on personal interviews with those doing public diplomacy as well as extensive personal experience working with USG webpages and blogs.

December 03, 2008

Arbitrary Coherence

I am reading “Predictably Irrational” about how we often make decisions not based on rational criteria w/o knowing it.   I have been interested the effects of irrational choices and random chance in decision making for many years.  If you recognize your bias and sources of uncertainty, you can make better decisions.   The down side of recognizing these limitations is … recognizing these limitations.   Everybody likes to believe they are rational and responsible.  It is also very hard to come to grips with the uncertainly inherent in all decisions.   

Uncertainty is part of ALL decisions.   If everything is cut and dry certain, there is no need for a decision.   You can just go with an ordinary rule of thumb or habit.  I don’t really decide to put on my seatbelt or brush my teeth in the morning.  I just do it.   You don’t want to make complicated decisions about every little event.  It would drive you crazy. But the habits and routines that easy life also can be traps.

Theory in decision making is starting to catch up with what many persuaders and decision makers have known intuitively for years.   Take the marketing example when a store offers good-better-best in a product line.    Markets know that given three choices, most people are likely to choose the middle one unless they have a strong prior preference. Clever marketers have the highest margin on the middle one. But how does this work?

It has to do with setting an anchor.   All values are really arbitrary. What you pay for a product is what you and others are willing to pay.  There is no “real” value.   How do you know what to pay?  By comparison.   But that comparison doesn’t need to be rational.   When you go out to buy something, you often don’t know what it is “worth.”   If the merchant can fix a price of say $100 in your mind, when he offers $100-10 or $90 you think it is a good deal.   If you had been fixed on $80 it would be a bad deal.  That is why the three choices work.  Few people buy the cheap one and almost nobody buys the most expensive.  The comparison makes you think the middle one has the reasonable price.  

We do that all the time with everything. We base our estimates on relative prices and we are arbitarily consistent among them. It is a good idea sometimes to ask yourself what it is you really want and make decisions based on them.  This is easier said than done.   Effective people do it better than the success-challenged, but nobody is as rational as he thinks.

A lot of life is habit and random chance.  But if you recognize what you cannot control, you can have better control over the other things. If you recognize the role of chance, you can arrange your affairs in to take advantage of the probabilities. They say luck is where preparation meets opportunity.   

I recently finished “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.   He wrote “the Tipping Point,” which was a very good book and “Blink,” not so much.  I didn’t find much new in the book, but Gladwell puts it together well and tells good stories.     Gladwell, IMO, takes the analysis a bit too far.  It is true that there are more people who COULD do particular jobs than CAN do them.   This is the story of life.   More things always can happen than do happen.     No doubt the real winners have lots of advantages and luck.   Very often, however, you can find these only in retrospect.   There is dynamic where successful people both take advantage of opportunities and create them.     The other problem with outliers is general is the small numbers lead to deceptive conclusions.    It stands to reason the very few or the one at the very top required lots of talent, advantages and a string of extraordinarily good luck.   These guys are by their nature unrepresentative.    There is often no useful lesson to be learned. 

I read the biography of Eisenhower a while back.  He was a moderately successful officer, but expected to retire as a colonel at best.  Then the war came.   Eisenhower and many of his classmates rose to high levels in the army.  Had they been born five years later or five years earlier few of them would have been so successful and none of them would have reached the five star ranks.    You cannot really use that information and it has no predictive value.    Nobody could plan Eisenhower’s career.   It would be more useful to study the moderately successful over a longer period.   Those are the guys who would be in a position to jump ahead IF the opportunity came.

None of us is around long enough to get what we “deserve.”  In the FS, my guess is that if you had a career spanning 200 years, you would probably end up where you belong, as random chance variations might even out.  I think the variation tends to go mostly in one direction, however.   I know some ambassadors who could have been unsuccessful if not for a single lucky break that made other breaks possible, accreting small advantages until they became big ones.     On the other hand, there on people on whom lucky breaks are wasted. 

Gladwell says that success depends on practice (he says it requires around 10,000 hours) and talks about the lucky breaks that gave various top   performers the opportunity.   This is probably true, but not everybody is willing or able to put in those long hours.  Hard work matters too.

November 29, 2008

Knowing Too Much

We found more than thirty official or authoritative studies of American public diplomacy compiled after 9/11.   This doesn’t even include the whole cottage industry producing popular speculation, magazine articles and general gnashing of teeth about “why they hate us.”    Maybe we know enough to draw conclusions.  Maybe we even know too much.   This is what I am thinking about as my group prepares to make our own contribution to this huge library. 

You have to be careful not to gather too much information.   Theoretically, the more information you have, the better decisions you could make.  Theoretically that is true.  In fact it is not. For that to be true, you would need to have near perfect recall, wonderful understanding and supernatural ability to assimilate the diverse data points.   The capacity of our computers to gather and store information leads us to a kind of hubris that we CAN use all of it.  We cannot.   And that also makes the erroneous assumption that the information is knowable. In the case of something like public diplomacy, we are dealing with conditional facts, a kind of game theory where any move we make provokes reaction which change the fundamental realities.  

 It is like one of those sci-fi movies where someone goes back into the past to correct some mistakes, right some injustice or just take advantage of his knowledge of the past to make money in the present.   It never works out because changing conditions in the past creates a different reality in the present.    This is no mere artifice.  We are doing it all the time.   Of course, we cannot change the past.  We can only make plans in the present to affect the future, but the real world principle is very similar.  Maybe that is why we like those fictional time paradoxes or the similar literature scenarios where trying to avoid the consequences of a prophecy create that outcome (e.g. Oedipus).     Our attempts to achieve a particular future alter the conditions we are studying.

Sci-fi scenarios aside, we still can be easily overwhelmed by information.    At some point, more information doesn’t improve conclusions.   In fact, it begins to create confusion.   This seems counter intuitive and people in the midst of information gathering are usually fooled.  Studies show that decision making does not improve and even gets worse, but the decision makers themselves have more confidence in themselves.   Bureaucrats also like to gather information perpetually in order to delay the moment where they have to take a risk and come to a conclusion and provide more cover if they make any mistakes.   This is a variation of the paralysis by analysis problem.  BTW – most people have the cognitive capacity to can juggle around seven chunks of information; really smart people can do maybe nine and the cognitively challenged can handle fewer, but at some point enough is enough and more is too much.

Next week we will be reading reports and talking to experts.   I believe in going through the process and that is what I am supposed to do, but we have to recognize when we are done and move along.   It will hard to let go.

November 24, 2008

We Get By with a Little Help From Our Friends

Below is a giant typewriter eraser in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden.  Kids don't know what this is.  They never touched a typewriter.  

Typewriter eraser at Smithsonian National Gallery Sculpture Garden

I have been thinking re public affairs strategies.  New studies about public affairs are coming out all the time.  Heritage just published one and Brookings will release one tomorrow.  There are at least thirty official or authoritative studies done since 9/11/2001.  I know because I have read many of them.  They come to similar conclusions, but still nothing much seems to work.  In Public Diplomacy Relationships Trump Information

The proliferation of media sources and the rise of the Internet have made information almost free to anybody who can use has a computer and can use a search engine.  In this situation, influence becomes more a matter of relationships than of actual facts, figures and reports.  The trusting relationships people have developed with individuals and media providers are the source of the influence, not the information itself.  

Despite the ubiquity of general information, useable information sometimes is missing.  Bloggers and other new media players are in need of content that they can use w/o copyright or based on creative commons copyright provisions.  We should provide this material in easy to “steal” chunks.  Pictures and video would be especially useful.

Below are American elms outside the American Indian Museum.  They are Princeton variety, immune to Dutch elm disease that wiped the beautiful elms off our city streets in the 1960s and 1970s.  Soon we will have a restoration.

American elms

We can draw on an analogy from an earlier crisis in American public diplomacy when we faced strenuous and vitriolic opposition to the proposed deployment of U.S. Pershing intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe in the 1980s to counter Soviet SS-20s.   More protestors hit the streets to voice their opposition to our policies in those days than came out against our Iraq activities more recently.  

Our action came in response to a Soviet threat, but much of the European media treated it as an American aggression.   One of the things they did consistently was to show picture of American Pershing missiles, instead of the Soviet SS-20s that had provoked the crisis in the first place.   

Through their contacts, American public diplomacy officers in Europe learned that one of the reasons for this imbalance was simply that many media outlets had pictures of the American weapons but they just didn’t have any of SS-20s.   Soviets were not a forthcoming with such things.   U.S. officials remedied the problem by providing good quality pictures of the Soviet missiles that helped level the playing field. 

Below is Smithsonian Mall.  The pictures, BTW, are just ones I took this morning.  They are not related to the article text, but they are nice, right?  I have a really nice walk to work.

Smithsonian Mall

This example is instructive in several ways.  Most important, it shows that a sound policy can be implemented in the face of vocal opposition.   What passed for public opinion in this crisis was wrong, but it didn’t seem so clear at the time.  It also shows how some big problems may have an easy to implement solutions and how we should not attribute to malice what may result from mere indolence, ignorance of a simple lack of proper materials.  But the deeper lesson is that this example indicates the importance of relationships, being near the customers and understanding their needs.   Our PD people would not have correctly diagnosed the problem w/o close contact with the people providing the information and they would not have been able to remedy the situation had they not already built a network of trusting local contacts that could & would help.

We could get by with a little help from our friends.  Unfortunately, as I wrote in a previous post, we wantonly destroyed our networks during the 1990s.   

Old Post Office

Above is the old post office building.

I will write more on this subject over the next weeks.

November 13, 2008

Office Space & Pleistocene Brains

Below is our new office building across from Main State (Harry Truman Building).   It should be ready for us to move into by June.  Construction is ahead of schedule, which is uncommon.

Pharma building in Washington

We are moving to a new building where space is at a premium & we had to assign offices.  I really cannot picture the layout by looking at the map of the offices.  Fortunately, my colleague Joel did the thinking for both of us.  He evidently understands blueprints and knows a lot of those arcane rules e.g. how much space a GS-12, 13,14s etc are suppose to get. Office space allocation is one of the thorniest issues you can think of.   It is not so much about comfort - more about status.  

The problem is that there are natural work flows and work groups that do not follow rank.   For example, by the nature of the job a low ranking receptionist will almost always command more space, albeit not very private, than a higher ranking analyst.   It might also be useful to group people by their tasks, but that almost always means that you might crowd the higher ranking group members and give more space to the lower one.   I think the whole rank thing is a little silly.   Of course we all want a nice big place with a window, but you have to consider the job to be done.  I figure that I need a big space to accommodate my big ideas, but not everyone agrees.  Some tasks require space, others not so much.

There is also the bugaboo of privacy.  It makes logical sense that a private workspace would be smaller because there is no need to have group interactivity.   In fact, it usually works the other way around, with people demanding large private spaces and the loudest or highest ranking people getting them. 

My favorite office arrangement remains one I saw in Norway at one of the environmental organizations.   Everybody from the director to the newest hire had the same small sized office, but there were common spaces in the middle where people could meet.  There was not much privacy, but I think that is a good thing if you are trying to create teams and synergy.   It is better if people see what is going on.   You want to avoid providing covered places to hide  Unfortunately in our organizations somebody always wants to knock down walls and expand his/her office, then close it off from everybody else.  I suppose the desire for mark off defensible territory goes back to our Pleistocene ancestors, but you would think after all this time we would have gotten over it.

Below - rainy day at the shuttle bus stop.

rainy day at the shuttle stop

There is another point of view on all this.  I understand that my insouciance on this matter leads to my getting rolled on space issues.  The Pleistocene warriors get to take over my hunting grounds and eat my lunch because they are so much more passionate.  Sometimes I suppose I should toss a few rocks and feign a scream.   But I am speculating way too much on way too small an issue in this situation. 

I don’t want to leave the false impression that I am having problems already.  The office space thing was just intereresting, not a problem.  My new colleagues are great and I got no worries.  I am pleased to report that everyone seems reasonable.  Perhaps that is because they are mostly new in their jobs and in relatively new offices.  Nobody has developed an abiding attachment to their space.  I don’t suppose everyone will be as lucky as I am.   Some offices look like they have been occupied since Neolithic times and moving those offices may require an environmental impact statement to ensure that the ecological communities that have grown in and around them are not disturbed.  I pity the guys who have to make those choices.

Starting the New Job(s)

Below is the Capitol & the Indian Museum on my way to work.

Capitol & Indian Museum 

It is always confusing in the first days back on the job.  This time the feeling is exacerbated because I am trying to do several things at once.  I am assigned to work on a strategy group at NDU.  While I am sure it will be very rewarding, it created a whole new set of challenges I had not thought about.  This is nothing earthshaking.  They are things like getting my clearances passed so that I can get the proper ID, finding my role in the groups and just finding rooms and offices in a place I have never worked before.  This comes at the same time that I am checking into my new job and checking out of the old one.   I have to file travel vouchers, get the logon, get the Blackberry set up, do check in etc.  Again, this is nothing earth shaking, but it takes more time than it seems it should and generally throws sand in gears.  

Below - chin up bars etc near Air & Space Museum

Chin up bars near Air & Space Museum

I have to be careful with the adjustment.  I had thought through my first weeks at the new job and had a good idea of what to do.  I don’t “hit the ground running”.  Rather I try to learn the new organization, the people and my place among them.  This requires time and patience, since it has the element of relationship building and not mere knowledge acquisition.  First impressions are not sufficient and I don’t want to move before I know where I am going.   It is especially challenging at IIP because I was here before, doing a nearby job, and I think I know things. 

It is easy to be overconfident when you think you know something.  I learned my lesson in Warsaw.  I had been in nearby Krakow so I knew most of the Warsaw staff.  I had even served as acting press attaché up there for a couple months, so I thought I knew everything I needed to know.   When I got to post, I just started to do things and make decisions and waves.  A few months into the job, I realized that I would have been better doing some things differently.   I like to take quick action, but I have come to understand the advantages of patience and doing not much at first.  Better to seem a little dull at first than start climbing the wrong mountain.  I am not talking a long time, just enough to start out on the right foot.

Below - Natural History Museum.  Notice the Roman style.  The Romans invented the kind of cement that allowed them to make domes like that.  Egyptians, Babylonians & Classical Greeks didn't use domes because they couldn't make them w/o what we today call concrete.  Alex & I visited the Pantheon in Rome.  The dome is still standing 1800 years later.  Even more impressive is Hagia Sophia in Istanbul built by Justinian the Great from 532-7.

Smithsonian Natural History Museum

I am reminded that my plans never work anyway.  I find myself doing something completely different, which will make my entry on duty seem more tentative and ragged.   It is like making the grand entrance just as you notice that you forgot to put on your shoes.   I am not sure how to handle this.   On the one hand, I can do both jobs.  This is not as crazy as it sounds.   There is a lot in my IIP/P job that is directly applicable to my NDU job.  Both responsibilities are involved with strategy, information gathering & public affairs, sometimes about the very same things.  What my IIP colleagues have done and what I can share with my NDU colleagues will add value to both.   There is a real possibility for synergy that I hate to lose.   On the other hand, we have the problem of being half there.  I guess the choices are limited.  I already have made the half there entrance and may as well make the most of it.

I attended my first staff meeting at my new IIP/P job and got the run down of ongoing activities. We are doing some interesting things.  We are going to do focus groups in Tunisia and Jordan re the impact of our outreach programs.  Another colleague is working on a conference and publication on the problems of extremism.  This is a very intellectually satisfying venture, since it will involve lots of scholars and get to play with ideas.  Other colleagues edit and post issue briefs and run the information distribution that gives our public affairs professionals information they can use to help them do their jobs.   We also run the public affairs toolkit, a kind of best practices wiki.   The media hubs in London, Brussels and Dubai also have a place on our pages as do the research people, who post their public opinion assessments.   There are a lot of interesting things going on and a lot of things I want to get involved with doing.

November 08, 2008

Polybius et al & the Rise of the Roman Empire

Since I am talking about old stuff, I thought I would put up a picture of my bike.  I had to take it to the shop and get new back sprockets.  The guy at the shop commented that he rarely saw one of them actually worn out, but mine was.   I got that bike in 1997.   I rode it a lot.    Best bike I have ever owned.

My bike

My walks to the Metro and to FSI plus the Metro rides take more than two hours a day and I have had a lot of opportunity to listen to my I-pod.   I have a really good program from the Teaching Company about Roman history.   (The History of Ancient Rome, by Garrett Fagan of Penn State)There are 48 half-hour lectures and I have gotten as far as the assassination of Julius Caesar.   

Studying Roman history is a good way to learn about leadership, good & bad, and the fall of the Roman Republic provides examples of what happens when the traditions and institutions of order break down.   The Founding Fathers were well versed in Roman history and our own Constitution is very much influenced by the Romans.  We tried to address the fatal flaws that played out in the ancient city.  Besides that brief unpleasantness in the 1860s, it seems to have worked out okay. 

Look at a dollar bill to see the persistence of Rome.  On the great seal, we have the Roman style eagle holding a scroll that says "e pluribus unam" - from many, one.  The other mottos are "novus ordo seclorum" - new order of the ages and "annuit coeptis" - he (God) favors, taken from the Virgil's Aeneid.  All in Latin.   The Roman Empire fell in the west in AD 476.   In 1776 it was a profound influence on what for Romans was an undiscoved country.

So much of what I learned more than thirty years ago comes back when I listen to the lectures.  I thought I forgot, but now I realize how much I learned, kept & internalized.  I just didn’t remember where it came from.   I had a seminar in Polybius my first year in grad-school.   My major professor, Ken Sacks, specialized in that historian.  Polybius wrote in Greek about the rise of the Roman Republic.   We read the sources in Greek (at least tried) but the big lessons were in historiography and the nature of evidence.    History is constructed by historians and they have a responsibility to follow the sources and not exceed or extrapolate from them.

Polybius discussed the rise of Rome and the Punic Wars.  He figured those were events worth investigating.  The Romans and the Carthaginians stumbled into the conflict over a bunch of Italian criminals who had taken over a not very important city in Sicily.  One lesson I take from history is that events are a lot more illogical than we make them sound later on.   A good historian makes a story that hangs together with conditional causalities, most of which would be unknown or unclear at the time AND some of them might actually be only the artifact of the historian’s story telling skills.

One of the biggest pitfalls of the study of history is the overemphasis on agency.  Sometimes shit just happens.  But we look for some person, persons or particular events to credit or blame for what happens - the agent - and historians always find one.  If that person had not already figured out how to make his own contribution look brilliant, his biographers provide him with an ex-post-facto plan more brilliant than than any that could have been concieved in advanced.  I believe that history is shaped by human choices and that great individuals have a great influence on events, but it is sloppier and less direct than we have to make it appear when we write up the reports.  It makes us too confident that our leaders can solve our problems and creates a systematic bias in our politics.

Scholars and military historians look at the Punic Wars as case studies in conflict and the perils of power.   The most studied of the three wars is the second (the one with Hannibal).   The Romans should have lost that war, but they just refused to give up.    The refusal to be beaten, coupled with the unusually large manpower reserves they could command explains their dominance of the Mediterranean.   They were not brilliant strategist, brilliant inventors or subtle thinkers.  They just has a talent for doing practical things and they just kept on coming back when most others would have given up.

Pyrrhus of Epirus learned it the hard way.   He beat the Romans twice and beat them big.   He waited for them to ask for terms but they just raised more armies.   Pyrrhus had to give up and go home saying "One more victory against the Romans and we shall be utterly ruined," hence the term Pyrrhic Victory. 

The body of the history of the Republic is patchy and contradictory.   Less than 5% of what historians think was available is extant.   The author describes the process of finding history like looking at the Palace of Versailles through the keyholes.   You see some things very clearly, but there are big places you don’t see at all.   Historians know very little about ordinary folks because the ancients, at least those who could write, really didn’t care much about them.  They wrote about the important people, i.e. generals, senators, kings and emperors, so even if we had all the sources available in the ancient world we still wouldn’t know much re the common people.    

Nevertheless, a lot of historians are trying to write the history of the common man.  We can draw clues from archeology, but while archeology can tell us a lot about physical structures, and lately with a sort of CSI archeology even a lot about the physical condition of the people themselves,  it doesn’t tell us much about their attitudes or ideas.   You may also draw the wrong conclusions.   Imagine if a future archeologist knew there was a war with the U.S. on one side and Japan and Germany on the other, but doesn’t know the exact dates or who won.   He digs up a Los Angeles from around now and finds that cars and products made in Japan and Germany predominate.  Does he conclude that they won the war and colonized the U.S.?

In my history seminars so long ago, I learned to assess and judge sources.  We did that by the context, the language, the historian’s skill and comparisons with other events.    You have to try to assess not only whether the historian THINKS he is telling the truth but whether or not he has the capacity to know the truth.   Some things you just cannot know.   No matter how troubling this may be, it is the fact.  We don’t get to fill in the blank spaces with what we want to be the truth.  Polybius, BTW, was a very good historian and his access to leading Roman politicians put him in the position to know lots of things.   Still, like everyone else, he has his strengths and weaknesses.  A lot of what applies to ancient history also applies to evidence in general and especially all that is proliferating on the Internet.   Sure, there is a lot more information on the Internet, but like the ancient sources, you have to assess whether it is true or if it can be true.  People just lying are only the start of the challenge.  Some honest people are not in postions to know and others cannot figure it out even when they have all the facts in front of them. Not everybody who thinks he is telling the truth IS really telling the truth and many people aren't even trying very hard.  You have to be careful.  Those lessons of studying history apply today too.

The study of history does indeed have practical value.

November 07, 2008

Education Options after the Leadership Seminar

Below - Washington Metro has nice vaulted ceilings.

Ballston Metro 

Below - School of Athens by Raphael, also vaulted ceilings.  Both roads to learning (sorry for the hyperbole).

School of Athens

It has never been easier to learn but the options are daunting because there are so many of them.   I recently completed the State Department’s leadership seminar, which left me a little disappointed.   But my education is my responsibility and I will carry on.    There were some lectures I wished to have heard and when I got home I got some of them – on my computer.  

Below - oak tree in fall colors

Fall oak tree

For example, I wished we had talked a little about   prospect theory and its effects on decision making.   Prospect theory explains a lot re why we make what seem like illogical decisions even when we have the needful information.  So when I got home I listened to Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman, who along with Amos Tversky originated the theory.   You can watch it too at this link.   At the same place, you will find a talk by Peter Bernstein re risk analysis.  Bernstein wrote one of my favorite books, “Against the Gods” the story of risk. 

You could always just read to all the books, but it is more effective to learn on a variety of fronts.   Reading reinforced by the visual or audio of a lecture is great and online even allows for interaction.   There are situations where audio works best.   I have regularly listened to audio programs for more than twenty years.  A long drive can almost be like a college course.   My sloppy way of listening enhances learning.  I tend to let them play again or pop in repeats.    Leadership and management programs are particularly appropriate for audio programs, IMO. 

Online education opens many more possibilities and variety.   What it lacks is the social aspect of education.  Discussing ideas with others helps fix them in the mind, sort out the pluses and minuses and make the learners see the bigger picture.   You cannot replace that.   I think that is why self educated people often have an uneven knowledge base.   The autodidact chooses what he wants to emphasize and will inevitably introduce bias.   Online learning exacerbates this, since you can find what you want very precisely and not come into even superficial contact with anything else.   The advantages outweigh the costs, IMO, but it is something to be aware of.

Other great sources of education in the Washington area are think tanks and the Smithsonian.   Most sponsor regular lectures and seminars on a variety of topics and they are usually not only free but you often get a free lunch.   These have the advantage of being in a social setting.   You can talk to people before and after the lecture and just being there in person adds something to the educational experience.   I took advantage of these things when I was last in Washington & will do it again.

Most learning isn’t done in formal settings and FS provides more opportunities than most jobs.   You learn most from your colleagues and fellow citizens and just by observing events and things.   In other words, you learn from experience, but learning is not automatic.   It is great to notice the trees and take time to smell the roses, but it is important actively to seek out and think about information and lessons from experience otherwise it just washes over you, runs into the mental sewers and is lost.   Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living.   I think we could extend that to say that an unexamined experience is not worth having.

November 06, 2008

Transit Oriented Development

Washington Metro pulling out of Dunn Loring

Dunn Loring Metro 

I lived near the Clarendon Metro when I first came to Washington in 1984.   A that time the area around the Metro was mostly covered in parking lots, cheap restaurants and pawn shops.   It wasn’t nice.   The area around the Courthouse Metro was a forest of construction cranes.   The Metro only went as far out as Virginia Square, which had a shopping center, used car lots and (again) pawn shops.  I really cannot explain the pawn shops; I just remember noticing a lot of them. 

Below - Ballston

Ballston VA

Today all these places are really nice.  Arlington, VA did a good job of planning for transit oriented development around the Metros at Rosslyn, Courthouse, Clarendon, & Virginia Square .   The area near the Metros are built up with high rise apartments, offices and shopping areas.   There is less need for cars and pedestrians can feel reasonably comfortable.   The Metro has pushed out to Vienna, with stops at Ballston, Falls Church East & West and my stop Dunn Loring/Merrifield.  

Transit oriented development is strong in Ballston, but it is just developing at Vienna and Dunn Loring and is not doing very well at all in Falls Church.   Fairfax has a plan too.

Below - Construction near Ballston

construction near Ballston

I am most interested in Dunn Loring, because that is where I live now.    They are building a town center served by the Metro.   It is still in the planning.  Chrissy has taken part in many of the meetings.  A lot of the “town meetings” are just a show.   The people from around the area come and make demands on the developers.   Many of the demands are silly and some are designed just to slow the process.  We favor density.  It is the only way you can have a useful transit system.   Many of our neighbors want to keep things low profile and spread out.   It is a waste of Metro, IMO, but the public hearing process gives activists opportunities to make trouble.    In any case, when we moved it, the area was not as good as it is now.   It was parking lots, open lots and a few apartments.     I think the town center will make it better.

Below - everywhere you go you find the guys with the leaf blowers, uselessly pushing leaves and grass, while making noise and pollution.

Leaf blower

I think we can take credit for a little prescience in buying here.   We bought a lot that was only red clay where they promised to build town houses.  Today we have a developing neighborhood.    The walk to the Metro, from my door to the platform, takes seven minutes, so we don’t have to worry much about traffic.    We wanted to find a place near both the Metro and bike trails.  Fortunately, the two are parallel, so during the warmer months I can ride my bike to work.    It is seventeen miles.   In my old age, I have become lazier, so I ride down and take the Metro back.   You can take your bike on the Metro after 7pm, so I hang around at work until that time.    I tell people that I am not really that ambitious and I am only at work in order to wait for the Metro, but people don’t believe me and it makes me look like a hard worker.   In all candor, I do get a lot of work done after 5pm.   The other advantage to the transit orientation is that Gold’s Gym sits between my work and the Metro stop, so I can stop by on the way home.    It takes away the excuse for not working out.    

Washington metro map

Anyway, the availability of transit means that I can go for days or weeks w/o really needing to drive the car, except to go to Safeway for groceries.   In the 24+ years I have worked for the Federal Government, I have never used a car to get to work only around five times.   

Below - Arlington did a good job a long time ago planning.  These places used to be inexpensive housing but now are trending upscale. 

Yard in Arlington.

A have been attending the SETS seminar at FSI, so I take the Metro to Ballston and then walk to FSI.   It is a nice walk, takes a little less than a half hour.    Some pictures are included with notes.  I like the fall colors and I would like to share the beauty.

Honeylocusts near Matel house in Marrifield, VA

Above are honeylocusts near my house.  They grow slowly and although they are in the legume family they do not fix nitrogen in the soil.  I was unaware of this until last year.   I wrongly assumed that it behaved like other members of the family.   I guess we need to plant some clover.

oak in the yard 

Above - Newly rennovated apartment/condos with a big laurel oak in the yard.  Planting trees pays off long after.  Laurel oaks do not have the nice ruset fall colors most other oaks have.

Condos near Ballston

Above - Fall color among the condos near Ballston Metro.

Red maple near Ballston 

Above - A very red maple tree.

Sweetgums at FSI 

Above - Sweetgum trees at FSI.

November 04, 2008

Generations (Leadership Seminar Day 9)

Cooper at Miller brewery 

We talked today re managing various generations in the workforce.   Postwar baby boomers are still the most numerous of government employees, but there are still a very few from the WWII veteran generation, a growing number of generation X and the up and coming millennial.  All my kids are Millennial.  They sometimes call this generation the baby boom echo generation since these are mostly the kids of us boomers.   

Most of us thought the idea was useful but that it was easy to overdo the generation analysis.    There are some general patterns.  For example, the veterans as a group are not very comfortable with technology, while the millennials are digital natives.   But some of it just depends on where people are in their careers.   The literature we read on the topic was a couple years old and the people at my table, boomers all but one, agreed that we were starting to look more like the veteran generation, with concerns about retirement and leaving a legacy. 

Generations make a difference in the government, since such as big percentage of us are or soon will be eligible for retirement.    We have to plan for a big turnover that has already begun and will continue for around ten years.  Besides the general challenge of simply hiring so many new workers, making sure the experience and knowledge is passed along.

There was an interesting lecture on possible futures.   This one was called the “Seven Revolutions” and it analyzed trends such as population, resource shortages, tech innovation, movement of data, global economic integration, conflicts and the challenge of governance.   The last one of these refers to the increasing inability of governments to cope with or even understand the other trends mentioned.

I won’t go into details.   Most of it is available at

Predicting the future is difficult.  When you think re all the predictions of the past it is easy to see the problem.    Think of all the apocalyptical predictions of the late 1960s and 1970s.   According to those guys we were supposed to have starvation in the streets during the 1980s and even global cooling by now.   “Soylent Green” was set in 2022.   I don’t think that future is very likely anymore, but it scared me at the time.    I think the trouble with predictions is that we have to project from what we have today.   Many of what will make the future better than the past has not been invented yet, or at least not developed for their eventual uses.    Developments like nanotech, biotech and alternative energies are just at past the starting line.   We really cannot make accurate projections. 

We cannot predict the details of the future, but we can think about possible scenarios and how we might react.   Tomorrow we have scenario simulations.  It should be fun.  

I got one good ironic saying.   In government we always talk about the dangers of stove piping in the organization.    Somebody renamed this.  They are now “cylinders of excellence.”   We sometimes talk like that.  I am not entirely sure it was supposed to be a joke.

November 03, 2008

Leadership Seminar Day 8

I don’t have a real theme for what I learned in the seminar today.   I enjoyed it more than playing games in W. Virginia.    I will just list a few take away snippets.    Most are not new but it is good to think about them again.  Below, BTW, is a unrelated picture, again from my tree farm.  This is the last of my pictures from my visit yesterday.  I have posted them all now.

Matel tree farm

We took all did a survey that divided us into three categories:  conservers, pragmatists and originators.  The names imply what they are.   Conservers are careful and circumspect.   Pragmatist do what they think will work and are flexible.   Originators are change catalysts.    Each has weaknesses that are the mirror images of the strengths.  I fall right on the edge between pragmatists and originators, a little into the originator and I am not surprised.   I understand that I sometimes can be a little too enthusiastic, which is why I always try to make sure that I have conservers on my team.   That was the lesson.   A team is strong to the extent that it embodies diversity.   The team is stronger than the sum of its parts because members fill in for each others’ weaknesses.   It is like a diverse portfolio.   I remember reading “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis.    Each of the founders had his flaws and strengths.   The flaws could have ruined anybody as an individual.  Together, however, they made a great team and produced a great result.    The other lesson is that they didn’t have to TRY to work together.    In fact their disagreements and even their animosity made the result better.   It is uncomfortable to have disagreements, but it can produce better outcomes. 

I also thought about “Decision Traps”.  That is a great short book about how to come to decisions.    The author talked about group decisions.   It is kind of a Goldilocks and the three bears situation.  If you have too much diversity and discussion, you never reach a conclusion.  If you have too little, you get groupthink and a rush to judgment.   You need the just right, but that is easier said than done.  Beyond that, the longer a group stays together the more group think comes in.   Finally, I thought about “The Wisdom of Crowds” and how the author says that you can often improve group decisions by introducing individuals with LESS expertise but also different viewpoints.    

When working to foster useful change, you work with a combination of pushing and removing obstacles.  It usually takes more energy to push than to clear the path and remove obstacles.   The book that helped me understand this process was "The Fifth Discipline."

I count the seminar successful to the extent that it makes participants think and I thought back to a lot of the decision literature I had read over the years.  I was happy with the seminar today.

We also talked about the Embassy of the future and the differences between risk management and risk -avoidance.   I thought those were interesting subjects, but I didn’t have any strong take-aways.  You can download the PDF file re Embassy of the Future  at this link. 

November 01, 2008

SAT, College Admissions, Achievement & Fairness

Below - I drove Espen over to Falls Church HS to take his SAT test.   Sorry for the dim.  It was just before sunrise.

Espen at SAT test

The SAT test is an annual ritual for HS seniors.   College admissions have gotten harder and more complicated over the years.  Some families are hiring consultants to get them through the experience and many kids take various SAT course to improve their scored.  I have very little confidence that the process has gotten better for its new intricacy.  In our quest to make everything fair & equal (often mutually exclusive goals), we have mostly made it capricious. 

Standardized tests were designed more than fifty years ago in to create fairness and give poor but smart kids a chance to compete with the sons and daughters of the rich and well connected.  They worked.  That is one reason I like them. In interests of full disclosure, these sorts of tests revealed my hidden talents and abilities and helped me jump the socio-economic divide.   W/o the Foreign Service written test, I never could have gotten a job like the one I have.   The rich and privileged can help their kids by massaging their resumes and using their contact networks.    Working class kids don’t even know they are playing that game until they have already lost.  Standardized tests are less subject to manipulation.  They level the playing field.

I am convinced that many educators and politicians dislike standardized test because they actually do work to differentiate fairly among applicants, and fair doesn't mean equal - something they really don’t want.   Standardized tests are also difficult to influence politically and they stubbornly fail to produce politically correct results.    No test is perfect and opponents attack from that angle.   They abuse the reasonable argument that we should not overemphasize one measure and try to devalue to whole judgment process.   They point to the exceptions that prove the rule. 

We should use multiple criteria, but let’s not pretend there are no valid criteria or that some criteria are not better than others.   If a kid has high grades and high test scores, he/she is almost certain to have the ability to do well in college.   If a kid has bad grades and bad test scores, he will certainly be challenged in school.   That does not mean he/she cannot eventually excel at school.  It just means it will be a stretch and the odds are long.  It definitely does not mean he/she will not be a success in life.   Success in school and success in life are not the same.   It is possible to be an educated fool and not everybody finds his best self at university.  But among those who are college-bound, the kids we should find most interesting and give more consideration are those who have poor grades and high test scores or the reverse.  This is where the testing has value. 

I object to the “whole person” concept in college admissions.   It is in fact a way for admissions to introduce bias into to process.   The combination of grades and test scores provide the necessary useful information.   When dealing with eighteen-year-old applicants, with virtually no work history, additional information will not provide valid basis for decision.  There are some exceptions, but they would be rare.    The only case I can think of off-hand is when a kid has a unique talent that shines through an otherwise mediocre record. 

IMO the rejection - proponents would say the broadening - of criteria is just a way to cheat.   The rich and privileged are unhappy that objective criteria weaken their influence, so they make a tacit alliance with “the underprivileged.”    That helps account for the statistical anomaly that elite universities have lots of rich kids and a good representation of poor kids but not so many middle-working class kids, relative to their representation in the actual population.    These are the ones who would provide the real completion to the privileged.

At my first post in Porto Alegre I met a woman who hated me.   She was the American wife of an expatriate banker.   I couldn’t figure out how I had provoked such a strong reaction in someone I hardly knew.  Finally, I asked her.  It turned out that she didn’t like me, or my colleague the Consul, because of what we were.    Both of us were from working-class backgrounds and both of us had gotten ahead through the standardized Foreign Service test.   As it turned out, her brother wanted to be a diplomat.  He had taken the test on several occasions, but was unable to pass.  

She explained to me that her ancestors had come to America on the boat right after the Mayflower and that her family had been leaders and diplomats ever since.   It was only in the most recent generation that they were pushed out of their ancient redoubts by upstarts like me and those darned standardized tests that breached the walls.    People like me, she said, didn’t really deserve or appreciate the exalted jobs we had.   I am not saying her argument was completely w/o merit.  I am sure her brother came with all those social graces that I had painful and imperfectly to learn. He knew what jacket to wear and what fork to use, but we were smarter, or at least had a better memory for tests.    It depends on what traits you value most.  The “whole person” approach to recruitment would have preferred him.

Bay View HS Milwaukee, Wi

Above is Bay View HS where I went to school in Milwaukee.  I got a good education there, but as far as I recall nobody ever mentioned FS as a career option.   I think if someone had asked me if I was interested in a career at State Department, I would have asked "State department of what?  Roads? Parks?"  BTW - the school was badly damaged by another "fairness" social engineering - bussing.  That was one of the dumbest ideas ever, unless the goal was to destroy neigborhood schools, but that is another story.

October 30, 2008

Unhappy Camper in WVA (Seminar Day 7)

Explanations of pictures are below.  Mixing the captions in the text was too confusing.


I am not very happy with this offsite part of the leadership seminar.   IMO this week has been not about leadership as much as about negotiation 101 or inclusiveness 102.   These are very good things in and of themselves, but much of what has been presented is the kind of things I have heard in my self-improvement and management tapes I listened to in my car years ago.  And they are things we all have practiced for 20+ years.   The review is okay, but we don't need too much of it.

On the plus side, I am learning a lot from my colleagues and have benefited by sharing their experiences.  But I have to say that my high hopes for the seminar itself have not been met. 

Nine whitetail deer in West Virginia

We learned a lot of management techniques, but as I mentioned above they were usually ones I had learned before.  I would like the course to be more about leadership.   Leaders are what we are supposed to be.  We were told that we were supposed to transition from management to leadership.  I think the best way to learn about leadership would be by using experience of our State colleagues and case study method using examples from successful, and unsuccessful, leadership from history.    

I would also like more State Department specific information.   Surely we could do that.  Maybe we will get that next week back at FSI.  We have some good speakers on the schedule. Here in WVA we are assembling puzzles and practicing techniques of mediation or empathic listening.  I don’t find much use in practicing these techniques w/o context or value content.   It is great to be open, but I think we have to be more judgmental.  Leadership means making judgments & choices and setting priorities.   It is not merely employing Dale Carnegie techniques to win friends and influence people.    We need to persuade and change minds, not just take opinion polls.  Sometimes – often – the needful choices will be unpopular.  We need to talk more about that aspect of leadership.   

New cabin construction at the Woods in West Virginia

Don’t get me wrong.   My experience with participatory leadership has been good.  I believe in it and truly practice it.  Working with others and having them support me has been the key to my success.   Lord knows I could never have done anything by myself.  But sometimes the buck stops with the person in charge and it is our job to take the responsibility when it falls to us, not spread it out as far as possible. 

I have the opportunity to walk around during lunch breaks and listen to a Roman history course on my I-Pod.  You can learn from history and I enjoy examples of leadership - good and bad – and the consequences.  It is interesting when you study history and look at leaders to see that it is very rare for a leader to be well thought of and/or remain in power for a long time.  It says something about the episodic nature of leadership opportunities.  Solon left town after he made his laws.  Themistocles was exiled soon after the victory over the Persians.   In more modern times, Churchill was tossed out of office after WWII and Harry Truman left office with an abysmally low approval rating.   Of course these are much bigger deals than our small leadership challenges, but I think we little guys can learn a lot by looking at the big challenges, choices and their consequences. 

Virginia pine blown down by wind

We had modules on coaching.   I think it is a good idea to coach employees and I recognize that I do it very often.  But the coaching we learned about in class was (my complaint again) very non-confrontational and value free.   I remember reading a biography of Vince Lombardi.   I think it was called “When Pride Still Mattered.”  Vince Lombardi was a pretty good coach, but I never got the impression he engaged in much of this touchy-feely stuff we are learning.    The Lombardi quote I recall is “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.”  I didn’t hear anything like that in our coaching session.

Loblolly pines in WVA

Anyway, I ranted a little about these sorts of things in class, just like I am ranting a little here.  I am not sure the instructors liked me very much by the end of the day and I don’t think it did any good.   Once again I get to be the skunk at the barbeque.   I don’t like to do it, but I guess I don’t mind either.

About the Pictures

1 – clouds over the conference site.

2 - You can see that there is no shortage of whitetail deer.    I saw nine at this one time.   That is the most I have ever seen.  Deer numbers have risen significantly in recent years all over the eastern U.S. 

3 - I don’t think “the Woods” community is doing very well.  I saw dozens of for sale signs.   This part of West Virginia was especially hard hit by the housing downturn because high gas prices made commuting out here to/from the population centers around Washington very expensive.   But that affects mostly the older, cheaper cabins build in the 1980s.   While they are up for sale w/o lots of offers, people are building new and improved cabins, presumably with the intention of using them. 

4 & 5 - These two are forestry pictures.  What you see in the first one are wind throws of Virginia pine.   The Virginia pine is easily pushed over.   They are transition trees and not long-lasting.   I did, however, count the stump rings of a Virginia pine that was at least 47 years old.  The ones standing nearby with similar stem sizes were about as big as a twenty year old loblolly in Brunswick.    The second picture shows loblolly.  I don’t know how old these are.   They don’t grow very fast around here.  The soil is not good and this is the northern edge of the loblolly range.   This stand is no longer under real management, as you can see by the dead heads.

October 29, 2008

Leadership & Vision (Seminar Day 6)

Below - still no pictures from today, so I used some old ones.  The first is Vienna from my 2006 visit there and the second is London Bridge, moved some years ago to Lake Havasu, Arizona from 2005.


Our leadership seminar continued along the lines of process, not content.   We learn that we should have vision and that we should be collaborative with others.    I am not sure that is always the best idea.  IMO the most important thing about a vision is that it be right and that is not always what most people see clearly. Good leaders can often see that better than most others.  That is one of the traits of good leadership.  I don’t think you can assess leadership properly if you accept that it could be content neutral.    We have to judge by where leadership is leading and how it is working.  

I am learning more from my colleagues than from the course.  This is the way it often works.  One of my colleagues gave the example of the “Music Man.”  The guy in the movie (Robert Preston) has vision, but in order to get buy in from the satisfied citizens of River City he has to create an artificial problem that only he can solve.    Con-men can create compelling visions.  In fact that is one of their peculiar talents.  Many “leaders” paint an inaccurately depressing picture of current events so that they can create support for their proposed solutions.   Honest decision makers know that it is very important accurately to assess where you are before you decide where you want to go.   The saying is “describe before you prescribe.” 

If you can make a bad vision popular with scam tactics (as in the “Music Man,”) it is also true that good leadership and vision may be unpopular.  Even the best plans don't sell themselves and you may not get “buy in” from majorities or even large numbers of people despite the fact that the end result may be good or necessary.  Change is usually perceived as risky and often painful.   It may make people openly hostile, but that is why we need leadership.    Leadership means setting priorities and making the tough choices.  Leadership is not required if conditions are stable and decisions are trivial or within routine norms;  that is just administration.   You cannot be a leader by merely following the long-stated preferences and routine procedures of the groups you ostensibly lead and you cannot lead from behind.   My criticism of the leadership course is that the instructors seem uncomfortable with the harder, less popular and maybe the tough parts of leadership. 

I agree with the emphasis of the instructors of putting people first and trying to get cooperation, but that good bias can be taken too far.   As one of my colleagues pointed out, leadership must sometimes put the mission before particular people.    People are willing to sacrifice for a good cause and sometimes they have to do that.   I don’t think we talked enough about those situations and we don’t talk enough about the sometimes scary and lonely decisions leaders must make.

All the people of the past who we consider great leaders took decisions that were deeply unpopular at the time.    It is only with the fullness of time that we have come around to seeing the wisdom of their choices.   As someone who is interested in history, I wish we had more historical examples in the course.   Our course is being held not far from Antietam that back in September 1862 saw the bloodiest single day in American history.   That is a classic case study in the results of poor and timid decisions contrasted with bold ones.    McClellan had twice as many men as Lee and he had captured Lee’s battle plan, yet he still managed to produce only an inconclusive stalemate.  I think it would be useful to consider that George McClellan was very popular with both his troops and the public.   His decisions were broadly popular and particularly wrong.   On the other hand, Lincoln’s decisions almost cost him the election in 1864 AND that was considering votes only with the half of the country that had not taken up arms against his leadership (a fairly good measure of disagreement).    An opinion poll that included the whole country certainly would have given him a very low approval rating.

London Bridge Lake Havasu, Arizona

One highlight of the day was when three of my colleagues formed a panel to discuss transformational diplomacy.    They had been talking about it in a side discussion and shared it because it was of general interest.   (Such things excite us.  I guess we are indeed a pack of nerds.)  Most of us agreed that the ideas behind transformational diplomacy were good, but our class was divided about the efficacy of the program.  Some of the places that got resources had trouble absorbing them and the places that lost them suffered painful cuts.   It would have been better to ask for additional resources rather than just move priorities.   We all agreed that places like India, Brazil & China deserved more resources and diplomatic attention, but it was not a good idea to take them away from places like Germany, Spain or France, which are still very important places that matter to us even if they are pleasant, peaceful and familiar. 

One of my colleagues speculated about how the events around the Iraq war might have unfolded differently if we had sufficient diplomatic infrastructure on the ground in Germany & France to carry out strong public relations and diplomatic programs.   This was BEFORE the diplomatic transformation, but we had already lost a lot to the cuts of the 1990s and the movement of resources to the new states of the former Soviet Union.    You can only do so much with less.   We opened and staffed post in places like Kazakhstan, Latvia, Armenia and Azerbaijan w/o a bump up in resources.   I am convinced that we had significant problems with public diplomacy after 9/11 because our public diplomacy infrastructure was so decimated in the 1990s and spread too thin.   I wrote re that in an earlier post and won’t repeat it here.  Anyway, it was an interesting discussion.   

My colleagues made some comments worth writing down.   One said that vision means a leap beyond where you are - a leap of faith because it usually represents discontinuous change, not very catchy, but true.  The best line of the day was, “if you ask for infinity, you can easily settle for half of infinity.” 

October 28, 2008

Crucibles of Leadership & Telecommuting (Leadership Seminar Day 5)

The pictures are from a trip we made a couple years ago to Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.  I don't have any good pictures from today and I like to have pictures with my posts.  The Hoover Dam was a heroic project.  I thought it was an appropriate example of planning and leadership. 

Hoover Dam statue 

I don’t agree that leadership is something that can be learned equally well by anybody.   Anybody can learn many of the leadership techniques and become better leaders, but I think a lot has to do with talents, temperament and personality tendencies.  Some people can get better faster and move farther than others.   An analogy would be Michael Jordan compared to me.   I can play basketball and I could get better with practice, but I would be unable to get up to the professional level much less play like Michael Jordan.   Of course, if he never saw a basketball before we played our first game of one-on-one maybe I could win, but I suspect it would be only a one time victory.  

Of course, I have to modify my idea by saying that there are different types of leadership appropriate to different types of situations.    I think this is the place where this seminar adds the most value.  It has helped me think about leadership in different contexts.  There are some situations where I think I would be a good leaders; others where I am less appropriate and some where I don’t want to lead at all.  

Hoover Dam 

Our morning session was devoted to discussing crucibles of leadership, hard situations that tested character.    The question that occurred to me was whether hardship tests, builds or merely reveals character.     As with most things, it is probably a combination.   Great leaders require great tests.  We forget about those that fail outright, so we have a bias toward believing that hardships build character, when they are in fact both a filter and a builder. 

Most members of the class shared examples of their “crucibles”, times when they had to look deep into their characters and draw resources they didn’t think they had.    I was impressed by my colleagues.   One of the things I find most beneficial about these sorts of meeting is that it renews my confidence in my colleagues.  None of us revealed a case where we failed and/or chose the less responsible or moral course.   I didn’t either.  It was too embarrassing, but we learn a lot more when we fail than when we succeed.    The key to the crucible is not the events themselves, but what happens after.  Suffering w/o learning is just suffering.   It is not uplifting.

I thought about my own failures and lack of courage in some of the crucibles I didn’t share with my colleagues.   That I still remember them and have thought about them indicates (I think) that I learned something from them.    I am not going to talk about them here either, however.    

We also talked a little re efficiency at work.   At State we often put in too much “face time.”  Maybe it could be more efficient to be at work less.  I remember my telecommuters.   I think that my response to telecommuting was a minor crucible of leadership for me.    I learned a lot from it.   

Below is something I wrote and widely distributed  in August 2007 re telecommuting.   I think it is still true today and I look forward to going back to IIP and seeing how things are working.    I did not edit or update it.

Telework Best Practices

Statue at Hoover Dam IIP/S is in the lead in managing and implementing telework.  We allow the maximum of two days per week for telework.  As I have been managing a staff that includes teleworkers for almost a year, I would like to share some observations.   These might seem simple or obvious, but some of their management implications are profound.   Teleworking is an important tool in any good management toolbox.

IIP/S work is well suited to teleworking
Much of IIP/S programming work involves communication with overseas posts, outside speakers and diverse sections of the Department and other USG organizations.  In all these cases, the best (sometimes the only) medium of communication is electronic.   Face-to-face interaction is required only for internal periodic meetings. 

Teleworkers are productive
Soon after I started to direct IIP/S, I surveyed the productivity in my new section.  What I found was that productivity, as measured by the number of programs done per person per year was higher among teleworkers and absenteeism was lower.   I think that is because the ability to avoid a commute is helpful to people with responsibilities outside the ordinary workday and allows them to be flexible.  For example, a parent who needs to take a child to the doctor perhaps can do it in two hours and take only two hours of SL.  A non-teleworker might need to take off a whole 8 hour day to accomplish the same.  I have found that teleworkers are also more flexible.  This is especially important to IIP/S, since we are likely to have programs in process in time zones around the world.  The sun never sets on IIP/S activities.

Telework is good for quick responses
In my experience, I can get a quicker and more complete answer from my staff when they are teleworking.   Teleworkers have fewer distractions and can take the time to consider a surprise request.  They can quickly access data and are, by definition, near their computers all the time.   Quick online data retrieval allows them essentially the same access as they would have sitting in the office.

Telework improves morale
Even among those who do not telework, having the option is important.  Allowing telework indicates that management trusts the employee to work outside physical supervision and that the employee is valued for his/her contribution, not mere presence. 

Teleworking creates a more robust work organization
As I learned during the snow and ice storms this year, teleworking makes us largely immune to capriciousness of nature.   Our teleworkers can continue to work unvexed by the frightful weather that throws physical commuters into the ditch.   If SA 44 had to close down for any reason, IIP/S could continue its functions almost without interruption.   We not only have the installed capacity to work remotely, we also have developed the management structures, habits and culture to make it work.

The environment benefits
This is a larger issue that makes a difference to me.  Although it does not directly impact our organization, it is important that State is in the teleworking game as local members of congress have mandates that government offices encourage teleworking.  Teleworking  takes people off the roads for at least a few days.   It eliminates the need for miles of commuting, lessening pollution and traffic congestion.  Next time you are stuck on 495, consider that telecommuting might mitigate this. 

Downsides of teleworking
Managing an operation with significant numbers of teleworkers requires a higher level of management skill.  Managers need to consider schedules of work and when teams can best be assembled and be able to motivate a workforce they sometimes cannot see (and it is sometimes less fun to “boss” over an online connection).  Mangers also have a higher responsibility to monitor teleworking to prevent abuse.   The downsides are easily manageable, IMO, while the benefits to morale, productivity and the environment more than make up for them.

Final thoughts on teleworking
In conclusion, I would say that teleworking in IIP/S’s first year of operation has been a great success.   We have found that allowing the maximum of two telework days per week has worked out wonderfully.  IIP/S office director and divisions chiefs closely monitor telework schedules to ensure that each office is “manned” during regular working hours and all IIP/S staff must work on Tuesdays, which is our face-to-face meeting day.   Telework clearly does not function well in all situations, but based on our success, I would recommend that others expand their use of telework when possible.  It is good for morale, good for productivity, family friendly and environmentally beneficial.  It is worth the effort.

October 27, 2008

Crap-Shoot (Leadership Seminar Day 4)

diceIt doesn’t mean that you just give up but sometimes you have taken the data as far as you can go and you just don’t know.   In those cases the best idea is probably to use probability and random chance.   I felt foolish saying this at our leadership seminar and I know that advocating a throw of the dice  amounts to apostasy among most decision makers, but it makes sense when the information available provides no reason to come down on either side.

I have thought about randomness in decisions for some time and did some reading on the subject.   I even made up an Amazon list of titles that I read.  My position is easily caricatured.    I know that.  What comes to mind is monkeys throwing darts or sequential games of rock-paper-scissors to decide really important issues.   But think about it for a more than a minute.  If you really have no basis for a particular choice, using randomness is the most efficient way to get past the dilemma and the only way to guard against systemic unconscious bias.    Why pretend to have more wisdom than you have?

Our leadership seminar produced a good example.  We broke into four groups each with the goal of choosing a fictional DCM for a fictional country.   We were given a situational analysis and brief bio/descriptions of five candidates.    The exercise was meant to let us practice negotiation and communication but the results were interesting for a different reason.     

All of us are reasonably intelligent and successful people.  We all actually have participated on similar selection committees in real life.   We took the exercise seriously and spent forty-five minutes each discussing the issue.   There were five candidates and four groups of us trying to decide.   Despite all our expertise and experience, none of the groups chose the same winner.   Beyond that, the one candidate that my groups eliminated first as the lowest performer was the top candidate for one of our colleagues’ groups.   Who was right?  Who knows?   I don’t want to read too much into this lesson, but the results of all our serious deliberations were no better than random chance and could have been produced by a random process in seconds.   So what can we do?          

Using randomness to break a tie or resolve a situation with no firm direction from the data is not the same as being disorganized or relying on chance in all situations.    Having a diverse portfolio of skills, stocks etc. is a way of acknowledging randomness.  If you were dealing with certainty, you would just put all your eggs in the one BEST basket.    A smart decision maker sets up his/her affairs to take advantage of probabilities.    You diversify because of randomness.  We all know that any hard decision is made in a climate of uncertainty and randomness will affect us in unpredictable ways.    Underneath all the planning, analysis and carefully crunched numbers lurks a random wildness we just cannot figure in.  The recent financial meltdown is a good example.  

I have my own example and a suggestion.    Good universities have more qualified applicants than places in their classes.    A qualified person is one who can do the work.   You don’t want mere qualification; you want to get the best qualified, but how can you do that?   You can assess their academic records and test scores to determine basic qualifications.   Many schools spend lots of money and time trying to go beyond that to find out the total person.   This is something they really cannot do.   There is not enough information available on the eighteen year old applicants to assess the total person.  Most kids this age have not finished developing into the "whole person" they will soon become and none of them have had enough time to create the kind of track record you would need to make an informed choice.   I advocate a threshold requirement to determine whether or not the application could do the work.   After that, I think we should go with random chance.   It is not a wonderful solution, but it is the best we can do.   Random chance has the auxiliary benefit being unbiased.    It doesn’t and cannot discriminate on the basis of race, gender, creed, color or national origin.

Most students apply to several universities.   It is a crap-shoot for them anyway.  If we did it my way, at least they could be assured that they were playing with honest dice.

It takes courage to admit what you don’t know and even more courage to recognize that there are some decisions that you cannot make as well as random chance.   But if you know your limitations, you can extend your abilities.

October 24, 2008

Leadership Seminar Day 3

Below - some FSI buildings

FSI building Oct 2008 

Some of the same themes came up with today’s speakers.  The big one might be taken from the “Wizard of Oz” - you are not in Kansas anymore.   The things that got us to this position will not necessarily sustain us in our new jobs.    In our old jobs, we avoided risks to get ahead and worked in a stable environment.   In the new world, we have to produce positive change and be able to understand how our operations fit into the bigger world.   My experience with big changes is that they usually are not ... so big that is, but we will see.

Anyway, this is not new to me.  I remember learning it way back in business school when we read Henry Mintzberg, Peter Drucker and Tom Peters on organizations.   Most of my business literature I read since re leadership said the same sorts of things.  It is good to see that this long-ago education still makes sense.    We also heard the familiar ideas re management by walking around.  I read that first in 1983 in “In Search of Excellence,” but it is always good to get confirmation.

We also got some State Department specific information, referencing a Mckinsey study on the “War for Talent,” which warned that State had to do more to recruit and hold top-quality employees.   One finding was that junior officers didn’t trust or much respect high level officers.  Maybe that was because high-level officers paid so little attention to them.  According to the study, only 30% of high State officers considered developing talent a high priority, compared with 76% of the high executives in the private sector.   One of the speakers commented that perhaps the private leader talked the talk but maybe didn’t walk the walk, but State leaders thought talent development had such low priority that they didn’t even bother to lie to pollsters about it.   The School of Leadership & Management was created in 1999 to try to address some of the deficiencies, but it really got going a couple years later with Colin Powell’s diplomatic readiness initiative.

When we talked about Secretaries of State who were good for State, two names came up repeatedly:  Colin Powell & George Schultz.  I agree.   I don’t have the high-level knowledge to back that up with statistics, but I know that morale was good during the Schultz times when I came into the FS.  Conditions were abysmal during the 1990s and improve a lot when Colin Powell came in. Condoleezza Rice has valued the professional members of State in the practical area of jobs and there have been more career than political appointees in the higher levels.   I hadn’t really paid attention to that, but now that I think about it when I was in Washington in the late 1990s there were a lot more political appointees hanging around.   The guy leading IIP used to be a political appointee as were many of the regional guys.  Now they are professional.  Career appointees are a good thing from my point of view, although I have seen many good political appointees and some bad professional ones.

We also talked about resources.   State has been resource poor for as long as anybody can remember.  It got worse during the early 1990s when we opened many posts in the former Soviet Union w/o getting more resources and worse still with the cuts and post closings of the middle 1990s.  (State almost closed my post in Krakow at that time, and thye DID close Poznan & Porto Alegre).  It looked like conditions might improve after 2000, but then our resources got sucked into Iraq and Afghanistan.   I think State has lots of challenges and places where diplomacy can add value, but we really cannot do it on the cheap.  I have no solution.

I also got back my 360 degree evaluations.  There were no big surprises, but I wonder how valid it is.   We name our own respondents.   I tried to get a “random” sample, but it is not really possible.  Most of the time you only get 7-10 people filling in the forms.  There is no statistical validity.  That is no problem IF we recognize that it is more of a guideline and ignore the precise looking statistics.   The most useful parts of the survey are the open-ended comments.  Some people make them; others don't.

October 23, 2008

Leadership Seminar Day 2

Below are trees at FSI.  They are all sweet gums, all about the same age growing in almost the same spot, yet for some it is fall color time and for others it is still summer.

Sweet gum trees at FSI in Arlington, VA 

Today we did a simulation exercise on leadership.   It was fun and useful but not realistic.  Leaders were decided essentially by random chance and after that the game was specifically rigged to give the leaders continuing advantages in gaining points.   I was lucky enough to be one of the three leaders and although I firmly believe the redistribution is a bad idea in most cases, in this artificial game with points distributed by random chance that is what I advocated and what we did. 

I think the game was designed to show us how power and privileges can be distributed unfairly.   I understand that and I got the point, but the game made me think about the real world versus the simplified and contrived one in the game.   Luck plays a role in life’s outcomes, but so do things like hard work, expertise and smart decisions.  In the case of leadership we could also add judgment, integrity and vision. Leadership opportunities and skills are NOT randomly distributed in real life.   I think that is the real point about learning re leadership.    Otherwise there wouldn’t be much use to study it or try to develop it.    That certainly doesn’t mean that the same people should be in charge always and in every situation, but it should not be a random event.

"Asking 'Who ought to be the boss' is like asking 'Who ought to be the tenor in the quartet', obviously, the man who can sing tenor."  So said Henry Ford and he was right.  Sometimes the situation determines who should do what.   Games cannot really catch all that goes into a decision like that, which is probably why most people who can consistently win at Monopoly aren’t rich developers in real life and why you wouldn’t want your appendix removed by somebody who plays a doctor on TV.    We all know that.  The problem comes when people have a simplified game-like interpretation of things in real life w/o thinking about it.  I think that is one big reason why socialism and its relatives still maintain their hold on minds of the credulous. 

Another interesting take away for me was different attitudes toward leadership.  One of my colleagues in the “leadership council” essentially wanted to abdicate the position and just let the group decide by consensus.   Her rationale was that we got the jobs essentially by random chance and so did not deserve it.  While she was right, I really disagree with her reaction.   I know it was just a game, but in this game and I think in a real situation the leader has the responsibility to lead.   Maybe you should lead to the group to another leader, but just letting the group drift is not an option, IMO.   It is a problem with leadership in government that we too often do just that.   I admired the Marines for their attitude, which is a different.  If a Marine finds himself in a leadership role, he takes it and does his best.   They have it right.   Leadership is a duty, not a privilege or perk.   If it falls to you, you have to do the best you can until there is an alternative.   Capitulation is cowardly. 

Anyway, the day was useful and the game was useful because it stimulated a lot of thought and discussion.  For we read an article re emotional intelligence of groups.   It was a disappointment.   I read the book “Emotional Intelligence” many years ago.   It is an interesting concept, but it can easily be taken too far and applied to precisely.   I think the useful aspects of article we read could have been summed up in a couple of paragraphs.   It was a waste with all the pages.

Below - the same fall-summer thing goes for this maple branch.  

Red maple tree partly in fall colors

Below - they are building a new apartment near my house.  This thing takes wet concrete in the bottom and can distribute it way into the construction site.   I am interested in this as part of my general theme re how much industry has changed and replaced people with machines.   This thing does the job of dozens of workers.  Jobs have not gone overseas; they are just gone.  Industry will eventually be like agriculture, with few workers producing the products for everybody else.

Cement used in construction

October 22, 2008

Back to Work ... Sort of (Leadership Seminar Day 1)

Below is Ben Franklin on the NFATC campus. Franklin was our nation's first diplomat.

Ben Franklin

I went back to work today.   Well, actually I went to the three-week training seminar.   It was good to have free time, but it is good to be back at official work.   Life needs a good work/leisure balance.  

The training started at our Foreign Service Institute (FSI) at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center (NFATC) in Arlington, Virginia.   Next week we will go to an offsite in West Virginia. They call NFATC the Schultz Center after former Secretary of State George Schultz.  

Below is part of the FSI campus where I like to each lunch.

FSI campus

Things have improved for us.  During the middle and late 1990s it wasn’t so good.  Our budgets were slashed and a lot of officers were looking for jobs back then.  Our diplomatic readiness was gutted, as the general consensus was that the world was a much more benign place and we were less needed.  There were very few promotions and we lost about half of our public affairs officers to attrition and people being selected out.  Colin Powell corrected the situation and immediately (the program started in FY 02, which was October 2001) started a diplomatic readiness initiative that brought in a lot of new officers.    

It takes years to “build” an FSO and we still weren’t ready when new demands were put on us after 9/11.  I firmly believe that one reason why we lost ground diplomatically after 9/11 was the simple reason that we lacked the diplomatic infrastructure to properly do our jobs.  During the 1990s we closed most of our libraries overseas, cut overseas staff and closed posts.   We just didn’t have enough left.  I hope that we don’t go back to those management conditions in the new administration.  I don’t think we will.   Both presidential candidate claim they want to strengthen our diplomacy and I am sure they understand that you cannot do that w/o diplomatic infrastructure. 

Below - our classroom building

FSI classroom

The leadership course was good the first day.   We had sessions at NFATC/FSI (old guys like me tend to call it FSI) and at the Harry Truman Building.  I cannot go into specifics about speakers etc.  We have the rule that we can talk about what was said, but not who said it.   It makes sense.  Otherwise people would feel constrained.   We talked about some interesting leadership issues, although we only began to scratch the surface.    Below are a few of my take-away items, in no particular order.   What you see in these notes is my take on the results of discussions among participants and are not any official points of view, BTW.

Below - we did the afternoon at Main State (Harry S. Truman Building) so I went for a walk on the Mall for lunch.  This is Memorial Bridge on the Potomac.

Memorial Bridge on Potomac

Strategic Challenges for State Department

State, like all big-established organizations, may have trouble adapting to the new world of dispersed decision-making and diffuse power.    For a couple hundred years, diplomats represented America and contacts among citizens were not very common or sustained.   This began to change with faster communication, but we still had the power of official position and a control of information.   Technologies such as radio or television required big investments and didn’t allow for much audience interactivity.  They were ways for the leaders or elites to talk to the masses.   

Things are changed.  Everybody has access to tools only high government officials had ten years ago.  For example, I can use Google Earth to see details of almost any place on the planet.  I remember how impressed I was twenty years ago to see satellite photos that the average teenager would scorn today as too grainy and primitive.  Beyond that, many people now appoint themselves "represent" America.  This can be good ... or not.  A year's work to build America's image and communicate with a foreign audience can be ruined when some celebrity shows up with a movie that trashes it.

Governments do well with communications where one can speak to many.   It is a challenge with something like web 2.0 where many creators interact with each other.    State, and the U.S. government in general can be one voice and a very important one, but no longer do we have the predominant position we had even ten years ago.   We have been overtaken by technologies and we are not sure how to respond.   We do not currently have the tools and will need to develop them.  Success is not assured.

Below - Vietnam Memorial

Vietnam Memorial

On Being Promoted

Many of us were a little diffident about our promotions.  We should get over it.  As leaders, it is up to us to lead.  We now have the responsibility to take a stand and be proactive.    We cannot blame “them” anymore because they are us.  

Below - heaven & earth in the reflecting pool near the Korean Memorial

Pool at Korean Memorial

There will be some difficult transitions.  Most of us made our careers by becoming masters of detail.  Higher leadership requires a clear, simple vision that cuts through complexity.   Some of us will suffer withdrawal and miss doing things with our own hands.   In our new roles productivity comes through other people.   We rarely will be able to point to something we can unambiguously take credit for doing.   We all need to network more with peers, mentor those below us and know when to stand aside and let them get on with the work. 

Below - Korean Memorial

Korean Memorial

On Leadership

One of the speakers quoted Colin Powell who said the secrets of leadership success were simple. You just had to represent U.S. values, build trust and take care of your people.   Simple is not always easy.

Below - Vietnam Women's Memorial

Vietnam Woman Memorial

Other speakers commented that their biggest regrets came when they did not show courage and do what they thought was right at difficult times.  Everybody thought trust, candor and integrity were important to leadership. 

We have a lot more to do.  I think we made a good start. 


For homework I read an article by Peter Drucker.    I read most of what Peter Drucker wrote years ago.  I even had a Peter Drucker daybook with quotes, but I had forgotten a lot.   This article reminded me and I was surprised at how much of his advice I had internalized. 

Below - last roses of summer near Dunn Loring Metro

Last roses of summer near Dunn Loring Metro Fairfax VA

For example, Drucker advises people to work on their strengths instead of their weaknesses.   Successful people are generally NOT well rounded.    Do you know or care if Albert Einstein could fix a car or if Henry Ford knew anything about advanced physics?   Of course you should get your weaknesses above the threshold point where they prevent success, but after that you are probably going to get more mileage out of building on what you are good at doing.   The implication for leadership is that you should ask what a person can do well and let others compensate for the downsides.   That is the strength of a team.   This idea is counterintuitive.  In school we are tested on the whole course and usually being really good at one chapter won’t make up for knowing nothing about the other ten.  In life it does.

Anyway, Drucker has lots of good advice, but I will let you all read Drucker if you are interested.   I look forward to the rest of the course. 

It is a sweet deal, IMO.   I enjoy this sort of thing. They pay me to do what I would pay to do.

Street in Arlington, VA 

Above is a street scene in Arlington, VA.  They planted those oak trees years ago and it makes a big difference.

September 13, 2008

Evolution of Western Anbar ePRT

As I get ready to leave post, I have some thoughts & lessons learned on my job here.  Please indulge me. 

Euphrates river from Marine Air

PRTs and ePRTs were/are experiments.  There was no script to run my ePRT.  Its initial form was not well suited to our environment.  We learned by trying new things, eliminating the failures and building on success.  I could call it a plan, but it was more of a process.  The first rendition of the ePRT was a version of the main Anbar PRT.  We had experts on banking, budget etc.  We were centered in Al Asad and in theory we would make forays into the hinterland. 

This didn't work.  Our ePRT is different.  We had a lot more physical area to cover and a lot less need for specialists.  A full-time banking expert is not so useful when you have only a few banks and none of them are really independent.  We could and did bring in experts to consult on special projects, but we didn't need experts; we needed presence.   

Our ePRT is unique in its extreme decentralization.  We adapted to an area of operations the size of South Carolina and its arduous & uncertain travel conditions by developing a system of embedded team members, who stayed with the battalion task forces in each of our five sub-districts.  We effectively implemented this only in the last few months, as staff changes made possible in practice what we sketched out in theory late last year.  The system got our team closer to the U.S. forces doing counterinsurgency and to our Anbari friend.  You really cannot maintain a long distance relationship.  We have come to resemble a robust network, which is exactly what is needed for this place and time. 

This is not a novus ordo secclorum and we certainly did not invent this organization type, but I am proud of the role my team and I played in adapting it for Western Anbar. I had something like this in mind when I started but I admit that I am a little surprised how well my team and our associates took up the vision and how quickly it became OUR shared vision.   

I believe much of our success followed from this initial-state decision, which gave us closeness to our “customers” and ability to respond quickly and appropriately.  All our towns now have functioning councils and mayors who have received training from us in governance, finance etc.   Markets are open.  Infrastructure improving.  We have helped establish links with provincial authorities to help get Iraqi resources flowing to solve Iraqi problems.  In fact, the thing that makes me happiest is how we have been able to reduce USG money as we have informed, persuaded and cajoled our Iraqi partners to use their own resources as supplement or in place of ours.  This is the responsible and sustainable solution.

(I will add a caveat.  I think our particular network organization will need to adapt soon to change in Iraqi society and what I expect will be its return to a more centralized structure.   As team leaders, we need to be more catalysts for the work of others than directors.  I see what we have here today as transition and I don’t think my successor will just be able to pick up and carry on.  He will need to adapt to the rapidly changing Iraqi reality, as I did, and our solutions will not be the same.)

My team members are known, respected and trusted by our CF counterparts and the Anbaris.   I am familiar to many the Iraqis all around our AO and I believe my own optimistic diplomacy has encourage them.  My team and I got out among the people and in this stressed environment just seeing and being seen in "ordinary activities" made a big difference. 

I was personally flattered at a recent engagement with a police chief.  One of my RCT colleagues was about to introduce me, when the chief said "everybody knows him."   I had indeed met the chief on a couple of occasions, but we didn't know each other well.  What I think he meant is that people know of me, of us, at the ePRT.  We stand out - literally - on the streets when we do market walks.  I usually take off my helmet and my bald head stands around five inches higher than the average Anbari.  We are seen and talked about when we buy kabobs from the local vendors, or when we play politician by meeting and greeting everybody along the way.  Being there is important. 

Western Anbar will not be like Switzerland anytime soon, but we did a good job in a tough environment.  (I can tell you about the relative comfort level of almost every kind of military vehicle or camp type.)  We helped establish prosperity and the potential for democracy in a place where neither of those things has grown much before. This is the biggest thing I have ever participated in doing, the most challenging and the most rewarding.  I leave Iraq still glad that I volunteered and content with the part my team played. 

August 08, 2008

Family Reunion

team photo 

Our ePRT is unique because of its decentralization.    Our area of operations covers around 15% of Iraq; we have five separate districts and it is very hard to travel among them.   In response, we developed a system of embedded team members, who stay with the battalion task forces most of the time.  Well, that was the theory.  We only got it implemented within the last few months, as staff changes made it possible in practice.  The system works wonderfully, but it creates management and communications problems, since there is almost never a time when all team members are together in one place.  Today we had a general meeting.  Dennis Neffendorf is on R&R and three new team members are supposed to arrive soon, but I don’t think we will ever get a bigger quorum than we got today.

You can see the picture.  Of course this picture is not complete because it doesn't include all the Marines we work with.   W/o them, we would be able to do nothing.   Marines from the effect group were with us in the first part of our meeting and it was interesting for me to watch the interactions.   My team members introduced themselves and said what they did.  I was conscious of the great pride they took in their work.  I felt lucky to be part of such a team.  Every member is motivated to do his best work and we all are trying to learn from each other.  

In our small way, we are making history.  Our relationships with the Marines, the Iraqis and each other are new and, as I wrote above, our decentralized structure is unusual.   I think it is precisely this combination that accounts for the high morale, desire to do a good job and eagerness to improve.  Paradoxically, every individual feels simultaneously like an autonomous entrepreneur and an integrated member of a team.  All great things are based on contradictions.  High morale is also a bit of a surprise in a place like this, but I suspect that the good sprits are more because of and not in spite of the challenging conditions.    I am also just lucky to have good team members. 

This may be the last time I attend a meeting like this with almost everybody.  I will try to have one more in September when my successor arrives, but stuff can happen between now and then.   It is interesting to think re leaving. My perspective is changed.  When I first got to Al Asad, I thought I would never leave.  It was a very unpleasant place and I would have been very happy to leave early.  I would have probably called it a reprieve. 

Now I am not so sanguine.  It is true that Iraq has become more pleasant (or less unpleasant) as we have upgraded our offices and the violence is way down, but that is not the whole story.  I have gotten used to it.  The dust and heat doesn't bother me as much and I have learned to perceive subtle differences in the landscape, so it does not seem universally barren, as I saw at first.  More importantly, I find the work and the people I work with very fulfilling.   I also like being around the Marines.  Their sense of duty and honor is great.   I hope I have learned something from them.

I am making a small difference and that is important to me.   I would like to continue to contribute.  Beyond that, I feel a little guilty about leaving before the fight is done.  Others have to stay; I get to go.  Others have suffered a lot more hardship over here; my tour in Iraq was not bad.  I console myself with the belief that I will have done my duty, finished my entire time & kept my word.  You can always do more, but at some point you have to recognize that it is enough. I am certain that everything will go on fine w/o me, but this gnawing feeling mitigates the joy I feel about going back to my family and the green and pleasant places at home.

I am sure I will get over it in short order.  When I am not in Iraq, it almost seems an unreal dream when I think about it.   It is so different living in America it almost seems like I am a different person.   I can understand why ordinary Americans who have never experienced this life have trouble understanding it.  It is astonishing to think that one day soon I will get on a plane and a few hours later this will all be over for me.

June 18, 2008

Success in Iraq: Thinking about our Team

Below is our team member Allen Gifford meeting with farmers in the Rawah area north of the Euphrates

.ePRT meeting with farmers Rawah Iraq 

Sometimes they expect more than we can give.  Usually we can do something. 

Our ePRT was part of the diplomatic surge that went in soon after the change in strategy that produced the military surge in early 2007.  The initial team was hastily assembled with short term contractors. My predecessor was a senior State Department officer, but he staying in country only six months.  The last of the original crew is set to leave in a couple of weeks, which made me think about how much had changed in the last year.

I didn't get to Iraq until September 2007, so I rely on what others have told me and what I could see when I arrived.  It was a lot harder back then, much more constrained and a lot more dangerous.  The team could not move as safely as we can now.  They could not talk to ordinary Iraqis on the street, as we now can do routinely.   They did not have access to the quick reaction funds we now enjoy.   In short, their job was to "hold the fort" and prepare the base on which others (i.e. we) could build.   I have to give them a lot of credit, as I sit in relative comfort and safety. 

It is also easier to work in general.  When the ePRT was established it was sort of accreted onto a Marine regiment.  Nobody really knew what sort of role the ePRT should play.  I think there was a little hostility among the fighting Marines to a group of know-it-all civilians.   This was exacerbated by the restrictions in team activities and movement I mentioned above.  I felt overwhelmed when I arrived by the uncertainty.  How could our ePRT add value?    I can only imagine how the first team members must have felt, landing on what was then considered the dark and bloody ground of the Sunni Triangle.  What a difference a year makes!

I had a real running start, provided both by the team members that smoothed the way for me and by the foresight of the Marines of RCT5.  I did not fully appreciate it at the time, but Colonel Malay sent his executive officer and some of his key officers to the Foreign Service Institute to train with us.  This helped them understand us and gave us an insight and relationship into the Marines.

We now enjoy a seamless relationship with the Marines.  My office is on the command deck, across for Colonel Malay's and next door to the executive officer.  My team sits with the Marine civil affairs team and it is hard to tell where my team ends and theirs begins. 

I am very lucky in that my team is largely self managing.   We form ad-hoc groups to address particular issues and each team member feels free to call on the help of other team members and Marines who can contribute.  The task groups are led by whoever is most appropriate at the time and much of the decision making is collaborative.  I think it was Henry Ford who said that asking who should be in charge is like asking who should sing tenor in the choir.  I find that works in my group, with particular team members talking the lead when their talents and expertise are foremost.   Our team and our groups have fuzzy fringes.  It is not clear where our team or the subgroups begin and end.  Maybe I violate some management precepts about clear hierarchy, but I figure in a group the size of ours with the necessity to form fuzzy teams with people I do not control, including Marines and our Iraqi friends, there is not much option.   It seems to work.  We get a lot done and morale is high.   I think that is an achievement in an environment as challenging and tough as ours.

That point about not controlling is important.  I influence. The authority to write those performance reviews is the source of most power in government bureaucracies.   I don't have that, so I have had to pay more attention to other elements of influence.  This job has tested my belief that the boss cannot expect to be GIVEN respect but has the responsibility to earn it.   I still believe it, but I appreciate more the other side of that equation - the team.  It is much easier to win the respect of those who respect themselves and my team members do.  

Of course, things are not always so gloriously uncomplicated.  We have our difficult personalities and difficult moments, but I think the challenge of being here and the responsibility of doing something important tends to concentrate people's minds.  Maybe teams like ours run on adrenaline.  Maybe that is why people tend not to be able to keep it up too long.  Maybe these sorts of teams are not appropriate in the more settled environments where a machine bureaucracy can perform at its best.  I don't know.  I have only a few months left here, so I probably will not understand it.  The team is so fluid in terms of membership and our tasks are so protean that it is hard to hold it down long enough even to get a good look.  It works now and that is good for now.   Next month I will figure it out again for then. sunflowers near Rawah Iraq

Management experts will study PRTs.  Some have started already. They may even study ours and our contribution to a better Al Anbar.  I think they will determine that the concept worked and that we did what we were supposed to do.  We didn't always go in a straight line, but we helped consolidate success in Iraq.  If they are really smart, maybe they will figure out how.   I want to read the report.

Above is a field of sunflowers near Rawah. They are better at growing the things than I am.


April 07, 2008

Measuring Success in Iraq

Two separate groups of people came to see me about measuring progress in our area of operation and gave me an opportunity to pontificate in my very best style.  I am doing my best to deploy all my skill and experience on how to assess and measure.  I am delving way back to my MBA days when I studied marketing research, but Iraq presents a researcher with almost the perfect storm of confusion.  I am not sure how to measure progress in Iraq and I am not sure that information is knowable even in theory.

One of the guys who came to visit was a practicing anthropologist.  I didn’t know they had that kind of career path, but it makes sense.  Anthropologists study relationships between people, institutions, traditions and society.  The skills of an anthropologist are more appropriate in Iraq than those of a public pollster.   I don’t believe the usual polling methods can produce valid results in a place like Iraq. Figuring out the situation here is more an art than a science, more anecdotal than analytical. My study of marketing research methods gave me a good feeling for the strengths and weaknesses of statistical studies. 

Graphically Misleading

The most misleading sort of study is the pseudo-scientific one, with lots of numbers and graphs w/o valid grounding in reality.  Such things are usually based on a kind of snowballing of the power of a few guesses.  A few people make estimates that are locally valid for decision making but not scientific.  For example, “How much traffic is there on the road?”  “Lots.” You could make a decision based on that, but it is a soft estimate.  Somebody aggregates these guesses and gives them numerical weight.  As the aggregations get farther from the original sources, they get less and less related to reality BUT more and more impressive in terms of certainty of numbers and presentation.  

In my traffic example, if you aggregate traffic information from downtown Manhattan and rural Wyoming, you might conclude that traffic is a moderate concern in both places and you could produce graphs and charts to support your position. I learned a long time ago that if you want to enhance the power of your own gut estimate, you should put it into writing and if possible draw a chart or a graph. I know this works, but I also know that it is primarily a presentation ploy.  Even in the best cases, it is used to simplify information and make it easier to understand.  In the process, we trade some degree of accurate detail for presentation. Anyway, I think we are demanding more of the information we have than it has to teach us and much of our precision is unjustified. 

Spock Trap

I remember in the old Star Trek when Spock would say something like “impact in 10.5 seconds.”  How stupid is that?  That is why I prefer Picard. By the time he says 10.5, the number has changed.  It is unjustified precision, but it is easy to fall into the Spock trap.  It is attractive and makes you seem intelligent.  BTW - my own experience in using deceptive numbers is that you are much better off using precise odd numbers.  For instance, 97 is a more credible number than 100 or 90.  (Remember that Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure, not 100 %.)My feeling about the part of Iraq that I know best, the places I have actually set foot and looked at with my own eyes, is that things are much better now than they were when I arrived six months ago.   I use the word “feeling” because that is what I have.  I have observed that people seem friendlier.  Markets are fuller.  There seems to be less fear.  Local people were once afraid to talk to us or work with us.  Not any more.  It just feels better.

Dreadful Conditions

I am convinced that conditions here are better than our measurements will be ever able to detect.  Iraqis have a long history with oppression.  Smart people learned to hide their prosperity from predatory authorities.  If Saddam’s henchmen found out you had something good, you might not be able to keep it.  We also saw the age-old desire to hide assets from the tax collectors.  As a result of all this, people have become accustomed to lying to anybody asking questions and trying to make conditions seem as dreadful as possible. 

Sing the Body Electric

A good example of a statistic we cannot use – but we do - is electricity.  Iraqis get some hours of electricity from the grid.  This power is essentially free, since the authorities have generally lost the capacity to meter and charge for it.  Naturally, everybody wants as much of this free power as they can get and when the power comes on they plug in everything they own.  It makes demand appear much higher and shortfalls more acute. If asked, people complain bitterly about the lack of power.  BUT if you fly over Anbar or drive thorough a city at night, you see plenty of lights even when there is ostensibly no power.   The fact is that many communities and even individuals have generators.  They prefer not to use these generators because it means that electricity is no longer free.  However, when they say that they do not have electricity, they really mean that they do not have FREE electricity.

Demand for electricity in Iraq is growing at around 12% a year, as people buy more things like refrigerators, microwaves and DVD players.  Supply can never catch up with demand as long as electricity is de-facto free.   I am convinced that if/when the authorities figure out how to meter and charge for it, the “problem” of electricity will be mostly solved, or more correctly it will stop being a problem and become an expense.

Fear v Greed

There are some sorts of statistics that I think we might be able to use IF we could assess them.  One is the risk premium that contractors and others demand.  Six months ago we had to pay relatively more for services because people thought it was risky to deal with us (i.e. they were afraid the insurgents would target them in retaliation). They charged us more to compensate.  Now the prices we are paying for our projects are dropping.  Of course that could be because we are getting better at knowing local conditions and negotiating better deals.   I think that if I could figure out a reliable way to estimate the risk premium, I would have a very good measure of improvement.  It is a kind of greed v fear measurement.

Banana Index

One of my own assessment methods is a “banana index”.  I observe fruits in the market especially bananas.  No bananas are grown locally.  They all have to be imported from somewhere else.  It is very hard to get a banana to market exactly at the right time.  They will usually be either green or brown.  A banana stays yellow for only a short time and if it is mishandled it gets easily bruised.   If you see lots of good quality bananas in the market, you know that the distribution system is working reasonably well and that good are moving expeditiously through the marketplace. Anyway, I shared my methods with the researchers. They are just rules of thumb, but if you call them heuristics they sound almost scientific

March 06, 2008

Leadership & Management

The picture is from my walk to the botton of the Grand Canyon - and back up a few years ago.  It was a long day and thinking of it reminds me that things take time and lots of forces working together over time create big results.

When thinking about my role as ePRT leader, many of the usual management descriptions spring to mind such as coach, mentor and various sports or military analogies.  Of course routine management of staff and resources takes up the bulk of the time.  They are necessary, but often not the most value-adding activiites.  On further consideration a less common analogy came to mind, one that probably adds the most value for the leader of a diverse team – reporter.

All the members of my team are experts. They know lots of things I don’t know and they often work where I cannot watch them, far away from Al Asad doing the things they are especially qualified to do.  I have to trust them.  It is impossible for me precisely to direct their work; more correctly it is impossible for me to direct them closely and expect good results, because (see above) they have skills and talents that are beyond my own.  I need to take advantage of their skills, imagination, innovation and initiative while still guiding them toward our common goals so that each member can best contribute his/her skills to achieve those goals. Synergy is the tired old word, but it applies well to teamwork like ours.  It applies even more when you consider that our skills and actions are only part of the total effort that involves so many other USG & military officers, contractors and - most important - our Iraqi friends and allies.  It is much more appropriate to think in terms of influence rather than authority.

Just keeping up with all the good work they are doing and helping other do is almost a full time job. I found the best way to get this done is to use the skills of a journalist/analyst rather than a boss or supervisor.  When team members return from sojourns in the field, I sit down with them and listen to their experiences, concerns and aspirations.  I put myself in the mind set of a reporter and ask myself how I would explain this in a written article and then how I might answer questions if I was on one of the panels on a Sunday morning news program.  Of course, listening is good leadership and understanding is essential to right action, but this is only the first step.  My responsibility goes beyond asking questions and reporting.  My job is to coordinate and guide the whole team and create synergies among team members.  If I were to plot my team members’ activities on a Venn diagram, I add the most value when I can find and accentuate the places of overlap.  Let me illustrate with an example.

In the Hadithah region, I asked my USDA expert to partner with local officials to enhance plans for restoring land productivity in ways that were both ecologically and economically sustainable.  At the same time, our governance expert worked on issues of land tenure.  Cloudy land title is one of the biggest impediments to responsible development in the region.  (Little things like a small QRF grant to organize the records office can leverage into much bigger results.) All the while our business development team member developed and implemented a plan for an equipment rental operation as our city planning expert delivered GPS mapping software to expedite forecasting and platting of communication networks and communities.  Each of these tasks was worth doing on its own merits, but when coordinated the total accomplishment will be greater than the sum of its parts.  That is what I do when I am successful and I think the talent for doing this is the key skill for PRT leaders.

Lao Tzu says about leadership that when the best leaders have accomplished their purposes, the people say that they have done it by themselves. That is good team advice.   I also find that thinking about my job and writing it for others who are unfamiliar with the details helps me understand my own plans.  Thanks for listening.  Comments are welcome.  Any of my team reading this - we can talk.

February 09, 2008

A Million Here ... A Million There

John Matel at K# When I was a kid, I used to play in the abandoned industrial area near the RR tracks.  It kind of looked like this, except in Milwuakee we had tall grass, bushes and trees.

The K3 refinery and pump station can produce 16,000 barrels a day when it is working, but it is not working and it does not immediately impress the visitor with its orderliness or its up to date technologies.  The British built the installation in 1948 and did not use even the cutting edge technologies available in 1948.  After that, it was not always managed to high standards; the refinery was run flat out during the last years of Saddam Hussein with minimal maintenance and it has not been in operation at all since September 2005, when a shortage of crude oil shut it down. 

Still and all, this place has potential because K3 sits in a favored spot, sort of the Gettysburg of this part of Iraq, at the intersection of rail, road and pipelines as well as in the catchment point among geographical features such as the Euphrates River and Lakes Qadisiya and Tharthar.  Oil can come down from Bayji by pipeline, road or rail or up from the south.  Oil and oil products can transshipped east to international markets via Syria and Jordan or used to satisfy local demand.  

Byproducts of oil refining also have immediate local uses.  Crude from Bayji yields a great deal of pitch.  Disposing of the pitch is a potential problem, or would be except that local asphalt factories can absorb as much pitch as the refinery can reasonably produce.  This asphalt is essential to rebuild and expand the road network in Anbar and in Iraq more generally.  Another byproduct is heavy fuel oil (HFO), which is … heavy and hard to move, but would be used as fuel source for a nearby projected thermal electric station at Tahadi, immediately across the Euphrates from K3.  Iraq needs the electricity generated at Tahadi, so reopening the refinery and pump station at K3 would go a long way to addressing pressing fuel needs and crude oil either refined or transshipped could provide significant income, especially when energy prices are high. 

If this all seems too good to be true, it is.  That is why we talk about potential instead of achieved.  Oil thieves damage the pipeline in literally hundreds of locations by tapping oil and war damage rounded out the trouble.  That is why the plant ran out of crude in 2005.  Alternative methods of supplying the refinery with crude, either by truck or rail are more expensive, but viable alternatives if/when the roads and rail lines are secure. 

The logical course of action is to create enough redundancy in the system that failure in any one part will not break the whole.  According to the plant managers, the refinery has enough storage capacity to keep the operation going for 7-10 days.  K3 does not produce gasoline since it lacks the machinery to blend in the octane increasing element.  I don’t know much about these things so I trust their word, and the Marines have engineers that verify it (trust but verify.)They also say that for a small investment in repairing and replacing equipment, the refinery can begin to produce naphtha and kerosene almost immediately.  Coalition Forces have been working to get the refinery up and running again.  Our ePRT has agreed to make small funds available to jump start the process and eliminate little stumbling blocks, with the hope that once the wheels start moving and people see that it works, momentum will build to get other parts of the refinery on line and begin to expand and update operations.

Some people say that for an investment of only around $80 million everything would be working just fine, but a couple million here, a couple million there and pretty soon you are talking about real money.  Decisions about these things are made above my pay grade.  Besides, this is now an investment for the Iraqis to make.  It is their oil after all.  The jobs and income from the refining itself and all the related activities could be significant and go a long way toward stabilizing the region, so we all hope the right decisions are made. 

Getting this thing going again has been the subject of much discussion since I arrived in Iraq and people tell me before that too.  I do believe that something will finally be happening at the plant by next week.  It is a small step forward, a down payment on future success, and I hope the start of something big.